By: Chris Brennan
I spent a few days last week at the 2019 Firemanship Conference in Portland. It was the first Fire Service conference I’ve been to in over four years. It was invigorating to be around so many folks who give a damn. It was overwhelming to have so many folks come up to give me a hug, or shake my hand – old friends and firefighters I’ve never met before alike. People said, “Thank you” for the work I’ve done. Those moments were validating and reassuring.
The most frequently asked question was, “Are you back?”1
I’ve always had a hesitancy about folks who are no longer in the operating environment that stick around sharing war stories or pontificating about what the women and men actually crawling down hallways should do. Yes, there is lots of value in the accumulated institutional knowledge those folks have, but something has just always chaffed me about it. When I got hurt and had to pull back, then had to retire in the forefront of my mind was the fact that I didn’t want to be one of those people. I didn’t want to be standing on a stage telling folks what to do if I wasn’t doing it myself.
The narrative I told myself to explain my unease was that as you loose currency – recency – in the operating environment you drift more towards sharing “back in my day” stories. Those are fun at the kitchen table, but as prescriptive or normative folktales I think they can be dangerous. Our memories are fallible, and the human tendency to create a better fish story is strong. The war stories aren’t reports from the front line where the immediacy of the action has been captured as factually as possible. They are fish stories. And I always thought that was what bothered me.
Until last night.
My wife and I watched the Academy Award winning documentary Free Solo – the documentary of Alex Honnold’s free-solo climb of Yosemite’s El Capitan face. I’ve known of Honnold – and his biographer, and badass in his own right, Jimmy Chin – for years. I’ve always been impressed by their level of calm and their appraisal of risk. As a dude who thought a lot about risk and managing risk I really felt like I understood them.
And then it hit me. Watching Honnold talk about his view towards risk, and his process for managing risk, I realized the real reason I’ve pulled back from the fire service.
I’m not the one standing on the cliff anymore.
For close to twenty years I was standing on that cliff. I was crawling the hallway. I was making the turn. I wasn’t talking about how to train or manage risk I was explaining what I did. I was sharing my way, a way that was open, fluid, evolving. I’m not standing on the ledge anymore, and with that comes the very real concern that something I used to do might get someone else killed.
That risk was always there but when you are sharing the risk it is different. Now like it or not I am, to some extent, a keyboard warrior. A guy sitting in the comfort of his house or office typing away or recording a video. A guy who can no longer say – “Let’s go try it.” And that will always concern me.
As I work to find my new role in the community – a role I need to become comfortable enough to get out of my way in doing – know that I’m well aware I’m no longer standing on the edge. If I say something that seems out of touch, out of date, or just plain dumb CALL ME ON IT. Don’t be the gal sitting in the back of the hall rolling your eyes at my story, stand up and call bullshit. Please. Maybe I’ve created my own fish story, or maybe the times have just changed. Throw a flag and make me explain myself.
I’m standing at the base of the mountain now. I’m offering my thoughts on what it takes to make the climb. At times I might even belay for you. But I’m well aware that I’m not making the climb, I’m not crawling those hallways anymore, and I will strive to always keep that in my mind.