It’s not a Tragedy or the End of the World . . .it’s just an Inconvenience
“To be mature means to face, and not evade, every fresh crisis that comes along.” Fritz Kunkel, Selected Readings, John Sanford
“REEEE! Hondo Fire department, respond to 29 Apache Ridge road. 43-year-old female, difficulty breathing.”
We rattled up the rutted dirt road in our Med unit and a trailing engine hoping that we’d get there in time to do some good.
As we pulled in the driveway, we were greeted by a woman standing outside the house. The wind was blowing, there was dust in the air. It was mid-afternoon in June in Santa Fe.
Three of us walked up to the woman, tall and lanky, wearing a work shirt, jeans, and worn cowboy boots. We figured that she wasn’t the patient, because she seemed fine.
But then she spoke.
“I’m house sitting here. The cleaning woman used an industrial cleaner when she cleaned the oven. I have chemical sensitivities, and I can’t go back to the kitchen. Can you guys clean the stove for me? And just use water and soap?”
I looked at Dan, our chief, and he rolled his eyes. But another firefighter, Barbara, looked at us and then back at the woman and said, “Sure.”
Barbara recruited me, and we walked into the kitchen, and spent the next fifteen minutes cleaning the stove, and just to be safe and not get paged back to the same house, the oven top.
Finished, we walked out, and the woman asked for us to wait a minute while she went to check out our work. She came a minute or so later, thanked us and went back in the house.
Dan rolled his eyes again, we got back in the med unit, reported to dispatch “mission accomplished,” and went back to the station.
This is not an uncommon call. In fact, the majority of of fire Department calls — 90% — are similar in that they are not really emergencies, at least not to us.
That needs some explanation. When your business is to deal with the emergencies of others, and you do it for a few years, you develop a scale in your mind for what constitutes an emergency.
We had a call once that summed this up. It went out as a “baby not breathing.” That definitely got us ramped up and we responded as quickly as we could. When we arrived, my partners, Laurie and Dan ran towards the house, and I followed with our gear. The dad met us at the door and told us their baby had started to breathe again and was actually crying (a crying baby in our world is most often a healthy baby. It is a beautiful sound). We immediately calmed down. We checked the baby out, all seemed fine, and they decided to drive their child into their pediatrician just to be safe. As we packed up to leave, the dad said, “it’s nice to know that our emergency is just your regular day.”
A baby not breathing is and will always be a “ten” on my scale of emergencies, but I took his point this way. Because firefighters deal daily with everything from cleaning the stove to a baby not breathing, it changes how you respond not only to calls in the first responder world, but also “calls” in the normal world.
There are tragedies, there are problems and there are inconveniences. The problem is that we get them mixed up.
Here is a simple thesis: There are tragedies, there are problems and there are inconveniences. The problem is that we get them mixed up. We turn the problems and inconveniences into tragedies and then we end up getting “upset” when we could just focus our energy on solving the problems or taking the inconveniences in stride.
Down the Rabbit Hole
A caveat: As you may have gathered, it is this topic: tragedies, problems and inconveniences, that causes firefighters and other first responders to part company with most civilians. It is not something that consciously happens all at once, nor is it a choice you necessarily make. It’s more like wondering why are people so upset all the time? Sometimes it feels like we must be missing something. Sometimes it feels, as firefighters, that we are so far down the rabbit hole that we are out of touch with typical day to day first world living. You wonder if people could see what we see day in and day out, would it help them stay calm in their regular lives? If they could spend a night or so running around with us to a few DUI crashes would it help them realize that most of the time, there is nothing to really cause upset when the day rolls around? It certainly worked that way for me.
But given that, the firefighter perspective might be helpful to assist in sorting out the problems that we continually face.
So let me say it flat out: an emergency to me is not a child coming home with a bad report card, not getting a promotion, or having the flu. They are problems to be solved, surely. Being stuck in traffic, missing a flight are simply inconveniences — bumps in the road — not tragedies.
This is not because by character I’m laid back — I’m not — but being a firefighter simply exposes you to the litany of real emergencies. We are daily slammed with comparisons. A cardiac arrest and a daughter not getting on the soccer team. A family losing their home to a fire and our hot water heater going on the fritz. A terrible crash and a niece not getting into her first-choice college. Running on a homeless guy for the third time in a day and being stressed because our utility bill is so high.
The intent here is not to be moralistic. Instead, it is to simply report how the firefighter’s brain works after a certain amount of time.
For me and I’m sure other firefighters, real emergencies, what will cause our heart rates to go up are when there is a life threat, or the threat of serious injury. Those calls, by the way, are rare.
This, of course, is from our perspective. If someone believes that chemical smells in the kitchen are emergent, I am not going to argue with them. But from where we sit, from what we see, that is not an emergency, it is an inconvenience.
Inconvenience: trouble or difficulty caused to one’s personal requirements or comfort. Merriam Webster Dictionary
Here is the connection. Most of the calls we go on, by this definition, are problems or inconveniences. No one is badly hurt or sick, no house is being stricken by the dragon, fire.
I would argue that the same ratio of tragedies — real crises — versus problems and inconveniences applies to us in our daily lives. Remember the test is, is anyone’s life at risk, or seriously hurt or sick? If not, it is probably more reasonable to call it a problem or an inconvenience rather than a crisis.
A logical question is to ask why that is distinction important? The answer goes to our self-talk. When something happens, we immediately begin to explain it to ourselves.
For example, when we are paged to a cardiac arrest, my “self-talk” is that this is a crisis, it’s an emergency!” We have only minutes to arrive and begin working a code. I get adrenalized, I’m going to drive fast, get there as quick as possible and jump into the fray.
When a call comes out as a “sick call” (Someone using the ambulance just to be transported non-emergency to the hospital), my “self-talk” is quite different: “Not urgent, I’m going to drive slow and get the work done.”
The problem often for us is, if we are not managing our self-talk, we can go into “emergency” mode for events that are not life and death, sickness or injury.
If we don’t manage our self-talk, if we don’t think about what we are thinking about, we can take a relatively insignificant event and blow it up into a crisis.
My visual metaphor for this was a call. We were paged to a trash fire at a home in our district. Not a big deal. But one of our new members, who had just gotten his lights and sirens on his car, lost control of his thinking, rushed to the scene, missed the turn on to the road and crashed into, you guessed it, a tree.
The key is that when we tell ourselves that “this is an emergency,” we get adrenalized and upset. If, however, we take the same event, remind ourselves that no one is dying, sick, or hurt, that this is just a problem we have to solve, or an “inconvenience” that we just need to roll with, we tend to stay calmer.
A simple way to control thinking
When I notice myself getting ramped up when the pager goes off, I ask myself, “Is this a crisis, a problem to be solved, or is this an inconvenience?”
A bad report card: tragedy, a problem or inconvenience?
A missed flight: tragedy, problem or inconvenience?
A lost work opportunity: tragedy, problem or inconvenience?
Being laid off: tragedy, problem or inconvenience?
Being dumped: tragedy, problem or inconvenience?
It depends a little bit on where you stand — if you’ve been laid off and have no financial security that’s a real problem — but none of the above rise to the level of a tragedy. No one died, no one is hurt or terribly sick (maybe lovesick), we can find other jobs, we can find other loves. And all the above are some of the problems that are ours to solve. But when we think them as inconveniences or simply problems, rather than tragedies, solutions will come easier.
This is inconvenient
I find myself thinking, “This is inconvenient” a lot. I highly recommend it. When something happens, and you look around, and everyone is basically OK, just say to yourself, “This is just an inconvenience.” When you feel yourself getting ramped up because traffic isn’t moving, whisper to yourself, “This is not a tragedy, it is just an inconvenience.” When the copy machine stops working, and it’s 5:00p.m., just say to yourself, “this is inconvenient.” When your boss wants to talk to you after you fix the copy machine, and it’s now 600p.m. on a Friday, think to yourself, “This is inconvenient.”
Say it out loud, think it often. You’ll be surprised at the effect this one word can have.
Field Notes: On Inconveniences
Take a day and list all the things that start to upset you. From stuff at home, to work issues, to your commute. Just make a list. That night go through your list and label each one. Was it a tragedy, a problem to be solved, or was it just an inconvenience? Use the test: Was anyone seriously injured or sick? Was a long-term plan put in jeopardy? Was your emotional or physical security threatened (or that of a loved one)? If the answers are “no,” then ask yourself, did you respond appropriately? Did you get ramped up, did you lose control of your thinking? Did you turn an inconvenience into a tragedy (in your mind!)?
Working that list, practicing over time will help you stay calm, help you respond more appropriately to the 90% of the things that go wrong every day.
Excerpted from Firefighter Zen: A field Guide to Thriving in Tough Times. Available at Local bookstores and online at Amazon.com