What A Win Looks Like to a Firefighter

(Editors note: The following post was written by veteran Chicago Firefighter Brooks Watson as part of our Stories project. If you have a personal story to share, please follow this link to submit your writing.)

Being Successful. 

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. Brooks Watson

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.

Co. returned, 5 men.

“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.

16 responses to What A Win Looks Like to a Firefighter

  1. Bob Notheis

    Good to see you are doing well and safe. I was in Chicago moving my daughter into her apartment, went to a Cubs game and stopped into the firehouse at the stadium. I asked the watchman if he knows you and where you were working, he said you were stationed in a house in China Town but off that day. This was around 2005 or 6.
    GOOD LUCK!!!
    BE SAFE!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. Being a firefighter truly is a risky occupation but an honorable one! Were there any people trapped that building prior to the explosion? Be safe to you Brook and your team!

  3. Great story and reminder. I tend to put pressure on myself on a daily basis to compete and get results. This blog spoke to me. Good message, being successful requires being. Thank you for posting.

  4. HI Brooks – I admire your courage and what you do. It’s wonderful that you are spreading the word about living an evolved life, counting your blessings, and living with gratitude for each day we are granted. Indeed, you are BEING – wouldn’t life be grand if others did this also? I coach how to live an authentic life, but not many really understand the deeper meaning of this soulful message. God Bless – Riana

  5. Cheryl Ford

    To all of the fire Fighting Men and Women who give their extended time in helping to save our communities with their endless life saving work in times where many dare not to go through the dangers that the job entails ,I commend you all because without you these circumstances would be disastrous with many more lives being lost ,May the joy’s of Xmas hold hope in your never ending battle to save others. Cheers and Merry Xmas from AUSTRALIA.

  6. Eetea

    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. #so true…wish everyone would reflect like that…thanks for sharing!!

  7. Louis Foussard

    Great story Brooks…

    And a powerful message for all of us. The most important thing of all – Being… and being present.

    I’m sure you guys don’t hear it enough, but all of us out here appreciate what you do. And to share a story like this with the world is important in so many way.

    Thanks… Louie

  8. Wonderful story. I agree success is about Being. We need to give you guys and gals that are firefighters honor and thanks, I have a grandson who is a firefighter and a son-in- law to be is an assistant fire chief. You people risk your lives everyday to save lives. I commend you. Just always remember, “God’s spirit will never lead you where his grace can’t keep you.” God bless each and everyone of you that do firefighting for a living.

  9. Linda

    Hi Brooks,

    Hmm. Didn’t read the whole thing but what caught me was. Being, Firefighter, Chicago. All important words. More importantly, states in which to “BE” Being. ( I am not sure I even followed that one) You are my hero. No, we have not met but why you share is attractive. Whatever your reasons for doing what you do, BEing is required. And that is heroic and that moves my heart. I do my best everyday as a yoga therapist and someone who has had to rely on firefighters and paramedics to assist my heart back into being. thank you

  10. Thank you to all who have read the post, commented here, visited my page or responded personally. I’m humbled. To follow up, no one was injured at this fire, but later in the fire, we were caught in a building collapse. Everyone involved ran, dove, or fell in the right way, at the right time. There is a powerful story there. I’ll probably wait some time to put it down on paper though.

    This fire was the first in a series of incidents that have allowed me to downshift. First it was addressing the urgencies in my life (are they really urgent?). The second was looking at some new fears, and seeing how they manifest in rightness. The third, was culling my digital connectedness. This means, leaving the phone at home sometimes, disconnecting app/email/social notifications, and spending more time with my thoughts, not distracted. This has allowed me the most freedom, and it’s allowed me to be most effective when I choose to focus on work, tasks, etc.

    I’m grateful to for letting me share this story. I look forward to the stories that continue to be told.

    Enjoying Being One of Many,

  11. Jennifer

    Seems as if we are both on a very similar path… I am learning to appreciate the “here and now” and the importance of “BEing present”. My professional career is very high stress/aggressive… Due to a series of life altering events I now practice on the yoga mat everyday and I meditate everyday. I wanted to share a book with you that has been very instrumental in my self awareness. The Sacred Path of the Warrior (Shambhala). Give it a try and let me know what you think… I promise you won’t be disappointed…

  12. Hi Jennifer, Thanks for the note and the suggestion. I’ll check it out. Yoga is part of my daily spiritual practice as well. It allows me to be a student, which is a nice healthy break from the go-go of life. Best, Brooks.

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