Gut Feeling or Overthinking?

Making decisions is tricky. When we’re at home, somebody may ask “What should we have for dinner?” The response is usually “I don’t care. It’s up to you.” In firefighting, we don’t have the luxury of ping ponging decisions, because we all know that every second counts. Add that to the fact that whatever decision we decide on the fireground has to be the perfect call, or things could get ugly fast. Where it gets tricky for us is when we’re faced with a situation that we may not be entirely sure about. You have different emotions running through your mind, but you have to act fast. Is your gut telling you to go one way? Or are you just overthinking your strategy?

In training, there’s a sense of comfort. Even though training is dangerous in itself, in the back of your mind you know that the danger is limited. The stress level isn’t the same because you’re given a scenario and you know that the “victims” inside are just dummies. All that being said, your mind is a lot clearer and the ability to make the proper decisions is a lot easier. Part of that is also the fact that in most training scenarios, you’ve already done them before. The building you use has a familiar layout, your crew is confident they know how to navigate through, and that lessens the stress about what’s going on inside the structure.

In real life, you get a similar scenario with reported occupants trapped, you and your crew are unfamiliar with the layout of the building, and every second counts. En route to the alarm you need to be monitoring heavy radio traffic, making sure the guys in the back have their assignments, and thinking about your size up. When you arrive, you now have your hands full. Neighbors may be telling you different ideas as to where an occupant may be trapped, you have a scene size up that needs to be completed, you need to make sure a line is being stretched and a water source is being secured, and you have other incoming units that are radioing for their assignments. It’s a lot to take in. You’ve been training for these scenarios your whole career, now it’s time to put that training to use.

If there’s one piece of advice I can give, it’s to remain calm. Even if you feel like you want to roll into a ball and cry, you need to be the voice of reason, not just for yourself, but for your members and all the people around you watching things unfold. Take a deep breath, and put your training and knowledge to work based on the scenario you now have. This is easier said than done obviously, but the next step to this is the decisions you have to make. Having confidence in the members of your department is a big part of this, and that’s a topic of discussion for another time. If the confidence is there, you know that things should run smoothly. As you’re orchestrating the fireground, you may be faced with certain situations that need immediate attention and you have to make a call. In the seconds you have to make a call, you need to understand the difference between your gut feeling and overthinking. Unfortunately, when stress is a factor, your ability to see the difference is cloudy.

When faced with this problem, there are a few ways to understand your gut feeling vs. overthinking. An example of overthinking would be this: You have the OV team committed to the second floor looking for additional fire and victims. Your hose team is now making their way in on the first floor. Knowing that you have guys above the fire floor, you may start thinking about pulling them out until you know you have water on the fire, but you also know you have a possible occupant within. You ping pong both these thoughts in your head trying to figure out what the best option is. Before you know it, 30 seconds have gone by and that’s more than enough time for things to deteriorate inside the structure. An example of gut feeling would be this: You have the OV team committed to the second floor, the smoke pushing out of the structure is telling you that things are about to get bad, your hose team is just getting a line in place to the first floor. You know that there’s a possible occupant within, but based on what you see and hear from the guys inside, you know that the risk vs reward doesn’t look promising. Your gut will be telling you to pull the firefighters out.

These are only a few examples. Every call will be different, but the main thing here is to understand how to differentiate these two feelings. Put another way, if the risk seems too high, it’s probably not worth the reward. Every decision you make is based upon your knowledge of firefighting and the interior teams communication. If you’re the OIC, you may not see what’s going on inside and it’s imperative that you listen to the reports from your interior teams to help leverage your decisions. Gut feeling is a powerful tool that we don’t usually talk about, but being able to hear its voice through the thunder of stress, and pull it apart from your logical thinking, it will give you an advantage on the fireground and help you make the right calls that will ensure everyone returns home safe.

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