(Editors note: The following post was written by veteran Chicago Firefighter Brooks Watson as part of our Stories about.me project. If you have a personal story to share, please follow this link to submit your writing.)
A few weeks ago, my partner and I were working on the roof at a large building fire. We needed to cut open a large hole, push down the ceiling below, and take out the skylights. These are the basic tasks of any roof operation.
This particular roof was big and conditions were poor. Thick brown smoke pushed into our faces as we cut, flames began to push through the roof behind us and the wind kicked up, making it all worse. It wasn’t going well and I was getting frustrated.
I thought this fire might be more than we could handle, but in the moment, we needed to get our job done. From my perspective we had another ten minutes to operate safely, and we could do the work in five.
My Chief had a different idea.
That was clear by the tone of his voice when he yelled “Off the Roof!” We weren’t happy about this. It seemed way too soon to go defensive, but we didn’t have much choice, so we made our way down. We bedded the aerial ladder and moved the rig away from the building. The interior companies moved outside, the tower ladders moved in and we all began the set up for a long wet night. I can’t speak for everyone in that moment, but it felt a lot like we had lost.
“Success and failure in the fire department are graded on a different scale.”
At the completion of every call, the officer of the company writes an account of the call in his journal. At the end of the entry, he writes four simple words: “Co. returned, 5 men”. It’s been done that way for decades, the image above is a shot of my company’s journal on the day I was born in 1972. We keep the bar low. “Do your best, but at all costs, bring five men home.”
As we stood outside the building figuring out our next task, it occurred to me from this new perspective that the chief’s call was the right one. If I needed further confirmation, I was about to get it:
That’s when the building exploded.
Fire, smoke and debris erupted from the building into the street. Some of the guys in front got caught in the fire ball, but when the smoke cleared, everyone was fine. There wasn’t one firefighter in or on that building when it blew. The chief had not forgotten, and his decision saved us. (Video of this fire can be found here: explosion)
With a refreshed perspective on what a win looks like, we worked for another four hours to extinguish the fire, save the adjacent building, survive another collapse, and save a dog. So, it turned out pretty good overall.
There were a lot of things that happened that night. I could have written about any one of them, but it was the lesson on success that resonated most. My life is abundant, I keep it full with purpose, and I’m driven to succeed, but I wonder if I’m moving to fast. Does my success require more effort or less? Do I need to achieve more or just let go of something not serving me? Is everything fine as it stands?
The point is this:
Being successful requires Being. Objectives can change, sometimes a win feels like a loss, or the other way around. But being successful requires Being.
So today I’m going to walk a little slower, do less, enjoy more, and make sure I keep an ear open for those messages you don’t expect, but matter most.