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Alone in a Group Is No Way to Fight a Fire (or Addiction)

March 26, 2019
Captain Michael Morse, retired, Providence Fire DepartmentIt’s the law of the jungle: Groups are stronger than their individual parts. Firefighters are no different. Everything we do, we do together.

The fire scene is the epitome of teamwork. The first in engine company stretches the line, the first in ladder company ventilates, the second in engine company establishes water supply, the second in ladder company opens ceilings and walls, and the third in engine backs up the first.

Everybody is focused on the reason we exist: search and rescue. Even then we work as a team; extricating a person from a burning building takes more than one person. There are grids, patterns, techniques, and protocols to follow—established sectors, sides, and quadrants with communication standards designed to let the incident commander know exactly how we are progressing or that we run the risk of adding to the victim list by becoming them ourselves.

If recovery were as group-oriented as firefighting, far fewer of us would be suffering. As group-centric as firefighters are, the over-drinking firefighter often finds themselves isolated. It is not because the group does not want to help—rather the person struggling with the addiction does not want to admit that they have a problem. Often, they do not want to stop their addiction and will not ask for help until a crisis occurs. Even then, the tendency of the group is to wait and see. Everybody screws up once in a while—that’s life. The person needing help is given enough rope, and it is up to them to use it to pull themselves up or be tied to their addiction.

Being alone in a group is no way to be a firefighter. Ignoring a fellow firefighter’s silent screams for help is not what the calling is about. We are in this together. We go in together, we come out together. We will not leave anybody behind—unless their drinking makes us uncomfortable. Then it’s every man for himself.

We need to get better at recognizing, addressing, and offering solutions to our peers. We can no longer take the wait-and-see approach. We all know how quickly a small fire becomes a large one. Addiction is similar; once the problem manifests, it will grow unabated until some force greater than the problem stops it.

We are that force. We are greater than addiction. Though addiction is a problem of the individual, the solution can be found within the group. Without exposing our colleague to ridicule, scorn, and possible disciplinary action, we can develop an action plan that can and will help, and may even save one of our own’s life. A group consensus that recognizes addiction, does not judge, allows room for different circumstances, and exists to improve the life of one of us is the beginning. From understanding grows action. The proper action need not be some abstract thing better left to the professionals. The group does not have to be the entire department, division, or station, either. It can be as small as 2 people: the person struggling and another person who recognizes the struggle and has the resources to combat it.

Even though the first plan seldom survives first contact, no firefighter would go in without it. Our original plan often needs replacement when we run into obstacles, but without the first plan we remain stuck in place, waiting for something to happen. Knowing that we have additional resources committed to the firefight allows us to put plan A into action, even when those resources are nothing more than the distant wail of a siren. We know that help is on the way, and we can get on with things and do our job.

Battling addiction is a fight that we can win, one victim at a time. Those sirens we hear in the distance when the fire is out of control give us the confidence to mask up, force the door, and begin. There are sirens of a different sort wailing, unheard by anybody else, but loud and clear in the addicted firefighter’s mind. He just needs to know that they are not figments of his imagination, and that he can depend on backup to turn his fight from impossible to something that can and will be overcome.

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