Editor’s Note: From time to time, we like to focus on students doing interesting things, and that certainly describes Mark Dunnigan. He’s an LCAL student, majoring in Holistic Psychology. An Iraq War veteran, Mark came back to school to pursue his degree, and plans to focus on serving first responders and veterans who are suffering from traumatic stress; he says he hopes to assist them in healing their invisible wounds, building resiliency, and living a happier life.
As a Lieutenant on the Boston Fire Department with ten years of firefighting experience, people repeatedly ask me the same question: what does it take to be a firefighter?
I like to describe the job of firefighting as bursts of unexpected adrenaline rushes, scattered throughout the tour of duty where ordinary men and women perform extraordinary acts. At any moment you could be called to an emergency that requires maximum performance and effort in order to save a life, protect property, or mitigate a situation. Even with the best performance and effort, a firefighter always has it in the back of their subconscious that there is a possibility he or she may not make it out alive. Firefighting is a tough business and firefighters need to possess distinguishing qualities and characteristics that allow them to perform in such difficult and challenging conditions. While these three traits are essential to every firefighter, they can also be found in every human being:
- Self-Sacrifice. Firefighting is a business where one must be willing to sacrifice their own interest, desire or life for the good of another human. In firefighting, you are equally concerned with the well-being of others as much as you are with your own well-being. On a daily basis, firefighters put their own interest and desires aside in order to properly serve complete strangers. I have found myself in many situations while working at building fires where I had to put myself in extremely dangerous situations in order to aid in the removal of a victim. As a team, firefighters work together as a cohesive unit, sacrificing their own personal safety in order to remove victims trapped or overcome by smoke and fire. Those humans and firefighters who possess this self-sacrificing trait have a natural propensity to help others and give back to the community, both on-and off-duty. From experience I can say that there is not better currency in life and in business than the gratification of serving another human being.
- Trust & Teamwork. is an essential ingredient in any team and is critical in firefighting. Firefighters work in groups no less than two during any emergency and trust that their team integrity is never compromised. During a fire, conditions can deteriorate extremity fast; sometimes causing members and victims to be trapped, disoriented or overcome in an instant. I can remember a car fire where my crew was working relentlessly trying to free a man from a burning vehicle. As they struggled to cut the seatbelt off, I noticed that the gas tank had ruptured and the fire in the engine compartment was gaining size. I immediately grabbed an extinguisher from the fire truck and made my way to the badly damaged car. Just as I arrived with the extinguishers, the car suddenly exploded and was now fully involved engulfing my crew in fire. I immediately deployed the extinguishers, providing protection for my crew, and adding just enough time for them to free the trapped victim. Trust and team work is vital to the success of any mission and is built from a foundation of training, hard work, and communication.
- Extreme Ownership is taking responsibility for your actions and owning up to mistakes. Firefighting is a dynamic job that requires decisions to be made instantly. Not every decision and action results in success, however, owning your decisions and actions will result in more respect among peers and team members. I can remember during a training fire when I was a new Lieutenant, with the new responsibility of managing and caring for four other men, that I was forced to own my mistake. The scenario was a building fire in a seven story high-rise. I was the first company officer on the scene and reported to the incident commander that we had smoke pushing out of the seventh floor. I was notified by dispatch that multiple victims were reported to be trapped and that all victims were located on different floors. As we made entry, my crew found additional fire on the fifth floor and found one victim. As we made entry to the fifth floor, I had realized that I was missing one of my crew members. Under heavy smoke and fire conditions, I lost contact with one of my members… and he was nowhere to be found. This sent me into a complete state of panic. I was responsible for this firefighter and I had lost him. I immediately had to take ownership for the fact that I had made an enormous mistake, and call command for assistance in locating this lost firefighter. As it turned out, my lost crew member was overcome by smoke after running low on air, and needed to self-evacuate. After the fire was over, and a post incident debriefing was conducted. I was asked about my missing crew member. He tried to take the blame, stating it was his fault and he should have realized that his air supply was low and notified me he was leaving the building.
But taking extreme ownership means that as the leader of this crew, the blame was on me. I stated that I should have been monitoring each member’s air supply, and been keeping constant voice contact while conducting a search under heavy smoke conditions. The Incident commander was shocked to see such honestly and ownership. It was evident that this ownership of the mistake resulted in more respect between my crew and my command. A common saying I learning in boot camp was, “Own your mistakes or your mistakes will own you.”
In order to perform successfully under pressure, firefighters should possess self-sacrifice, trust & team work, and extreme ownership at all times. These essential traits will make a unit stronger and more cohesive. But these attributes are not just for firefighters. They should also be encouraged in all team sports, and practiced at an early age. No matter who you are or what your career goals, developing these attributes will result in more effective and efficient leaders in business, public service, and life in general.