The Quicksand of Complacency

[This article originally appeared in the 2020 Fall Issue of Two More Chains.]

By Peter M. Leschak

I was certain Harry’s house was doomed. The attached garage was a seething glut of fire, two vehicles burning fiercely inside. Vinyl siding was melting off the second story of the residence, and from fifty yards away on a 15-degree December evening I could feel the heat on my face.

As our first fire department engine pulled in, I hurried to Harry, who was standing forlornly in calf-deep snow, his arm in a sling after recent surgery. Bathed in flickering orange light he faced me and pleaded, “Please save my house.” It was one of those moments when it sucks to be a rural fire chief. “We’ll do our best, Harry,” I replied, unable to rise to a bravura fib like “We’ve got this! We’ll kick butt!”

But in fact, that’s what happened. In hindsight, four factors meshed to preserve the home: correct placement and use of an appropriate nozzle; a garage/house interface that met fire code; the timely delivery of water by truck (no fire hydrants in the woods); and a blessing of good luck—it wasn’t below zero, most of our people were available, the fire was detected early.

After a two-hour engagement, not only was Harry’s house still standing, but he was able to spend the night. We received aid from two other departments, one being a city “paid-on-call” outfit with more expertise, experience, and equipment. One of their captains responded to the scene with extra breathing air and arrived as the outcome of our effort became apparent. He studied the house and the smoldering black mass that had been the garage and two vehicles, then turned to me shaking his head: “I can’t believe you guys saved the house.”

“Yeah, I can’t either,” I replied.

Harry was thrilled. I could’ve been boastful and cocky after all. Our crew, despite being mostly soaked in sub-freezing weather, was joyful—almost giddy—at what they’d accomplished. It was an exceedingly dangerous moment. One of our people exclaimed, “That was amazing! What a save! I can retire now.”

“No you can’t,” I said. “You haven’t saved a baby yet.”

“Oh, yeah. Good point.” We laughed with the camaraderie of the victorious, but I made a mental note to conduct an After Action Review as soon as possible, to capture what we could do better and to emphasize where luck and not our tools and skill was decisive. Yes, I did crap on the parade. Success is heartening, but can also be a menacing liability. Success will hiss in your ear: “you’re good and you deserve to win; just keep doing what you’re doing and you’ll always come out on top.” Until you don’t. The vilest adversary of any performance is complacency. A first responder can only relax when they are retired or dead, and sustaining that pitch of mindfulness is a hard road.

Don’t Enjoy Success Too Much

Dr. Karl Weick, organizational performance guru, wrote, “When it comes to mindfulness, it’s good to feel bad, and bad to feel good.” In other words, skeptical pessimism will enhance the prospect of your survival and success, but don’t enjoy success too much.

Complacency is tenacious, and not confined to the fireground. A decade after we saved Harry’s house, in late afternoon this past September 14th, I checked into a motel in western Minnesota. The next morning I was slated to deliver an extended briefing to 29 municipal fire department personnel from across Minnesota who had volunteered themselves and their engines for dispatch to noteworthy wildfires in Oregon. I represented Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) wildfire operations., My task was to offer insight into a response regime most of them had not experienced.

In my room, as I eased into a chair to review notes, I happened to glance out the second-story window—and froze. In the foreground an American flag fluttered on a tall pole. As the banner undulated in a southerly breeze, it covered and uncovered an orange-yellow solar disk, thickly filtered by a rampart of gray smoke from the West Coast. The entire sky smoldered in soft pastels. I could stare directly at the sun and also see its silhouette through the stripes of Old Glory. It was 7 p.m., a half-hour before sundown, but ten minutes later the orb vanished into murk.

I felt a spark of happiness at the unexpected scene, a surge of energy as I smiled at the window. Why? The scene was pretty and beguiling, like glimpsing a rare species of bird, but the image seemed to transcend loveliness. Symbolism? Well, one association was grim—the overshadowing twilight of the American prospect, squelched by the pall of apocalypse. But that was too facile, and only occurred to me much later. My initial delighted reaction was spontaneous and unanalyzed except for this: the past several months had been short of such moments, such gifts. Not that the universe had stopped generating arresting images and experiences, but that I’d had difficulty seeing them.

Much to Learn; Many Lessons to Master

I’d not been living enough in the present, mindful of the moment. I was too intent on the future, distracted by “what-ifs” about the pandemic, the election, the economy, the climate. Foresight is valuable, but it’s wise to recall that the future—in whatever way you envision it—doesn’t exist. At least not until it becomes the present, then quickly the past. In that sense, fretting about the future is fretting about nothing. What good is that? As I watched the flag, I realized I’d been complacent about my relative disregard of the present. The smoky sun and flag gripped me and barked, “Pay attention!” and I was happy to be where and when I was.

The next morning, with the rising sun a dim reddish circle and COVID-19 protocols in place, I was pleased to deliver the briefing to pumped-up firefighters. I was glad for the privilege of membership in the fire service. I was present, but how to remain?

If I direct you to “Avoid complacency!” I may just as well urge you “Don’t breathe!” Mindfulness, however you choose to cultivate it, is one antidote, but so is the purpose of the publication you are reading: learning. That’s a practice I can credibly urge you to perform. Our knowledge and our ignorance expand in sync. Fresh answers spawn new questions, and if you are in a continual state of education it’s not as easy to slip into the quicksand of complacency. Webster’s defines “complacent” as “satisfied, smug.” With so much to learn and so many lessons to master, how can you surrender to that? Rather, believe: we’re not good enough and never will be. Peace. There’s always at least two more chains to go.

About the Author

Peter Leschak is a career wildland firefighter for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Division of Forestry. He entered the fire service in 1981 via a rural volunteer fire department where he served as chief for 30 years. He spent three seasons with the U.S. Forest Service in Idaho as a helitack crew leader, and a total of 19 years in helicopter operations.

Peter Leschak

For several years Peter was assigned as a DIVS with one of the Minnesota Incident Command System’s Type 2 IMTs. He’s worked a thousand incidents in 14 states and one Canadian province, including tornado and hurricane recovery.

For 25 years he’s been a fire instructor in both the wildland and structure realms for the Minnesota DNR, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Great Lakes Forest Fire Compact, and the Minnesota State College and University System.

Peter moonlights as a freelance writer and is the author of 10 nonfiction books, including Ghosts of the Fireground. He’s produced more than 300 magazine and newspaper articles, including pieces in Harper’s, The New York Times, Outdoor Life, Backpacker, and dozens of others. He lives and works in Side Lake, Minnesota.

Peter’s last article for Two More Chains “A Burning Mindful Moment” appeared in the Summer 2018 Issue.

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