Nerves of steel? How to prove you’ve got ‘em

By the time the fire trucks arrived the building was fully engulfed in fifty foot high flames. Fortunately, the police had already cleared the area and everyone was safe. But when the firefighters rolled up and marched directly toward the inferno I feared the safety record was about to take a turn for the worse.

Have you ever witnessed a three alarm fire? Last week was my first, as my daughter and I were out for a bike ride and came upon a small fire at an apartment complex that within minutes of our arrival had gotten out of control.

The scene played out as you’d see in a movie:

People run out of building, police clear the area, firefighters show up to save the day. Hollywood drama, however, ended the moment these brave firefighters moved toward the flames. What made this so different from what we’ve seen in the movies? They walked.

I imagined these firefighters leaping off the truck, sprinting up the stairs, and madly rushing about in a desperate attempt to extinguish the flames. Instead, these guys calmly approached the fire and carefully moved about the scene at a steady pace, even when they were so close to the flames I feared they were going to spontaneously combust.

The situation was growing dire: Their fire hoses weren’t keeping pace with the flames and the roof was beginning to collapse. At that moment, all the fire trucks started blaring their horns while the chief on the ground gestured an “Abandon ship!” signal.

Again, I was certain in that moment these guys would break into a sprint and get the heck out of the danger zone as fast as their legs would carry them. But nope, they calmly changed direction and moseyed down the stairs. Imagine! A fifty foot high inferno at your back, the building in a state of collapse, your boss wildly gesturing for you to get the hell out of there, and you calmly exit the building as if you’re leaving the opera. Nerves of steel indeed.

I have no idea if this is standard firefighting protocol but upon reflection it made perfect sense. Think about it: You’re wearing a bulky suit, you’re peering through a face shield that limits your vision, you’re stepping through a smoke-filled area you’ve never before visited, and a bunch of your firefighting buddies are clustered around you. Under these circumstances, running around like an adrenalized chicken is the worst thing you can do.

You and I may not be firefighters but how often do you find yourself living the watered down corporate or personal equivalent? An angry customer chews you out. Your car breaks down on a busy road. Your boss demands that you complete four days of work in four hours. Your kid runs to you in tears after falling off her bike… Whatever the “Oh s***” moment, our instinct is to freak out.

What did these brave firefighters teach me? Do the opposite.

When you find yourself facing a raging fire and a collapsing roof, SLOW DOWN. Take a deep breath, carefully scan your surroundings, and execute a reasonable plan one slow, steady step at a time.

So what happened to our firefighters? Well, here’s what didn’t happen: They didn’t stumble, they didn’t lose control, they didn’t fall down the stairs, and they didn’t get injured. They all made it safely back to their trucks and a few minutes later successfully got the fire under control.

Take a deep breath. Stay calm. Work together… And thank your local fire department for the dangerous work they do.