Instincts Over Feelings

Issue 8 and Volume 12.

Karma and Kitty

Since Rizzo was slated to be put to sleep two days later, we saved her life. It seemed like a clear moment of Karma, and my daughter couldn’t wait to get Rizzo to Grandma’s. That weekend, we packed the car and headed to my mother’s log cabin on the top of a mountain in northeastern Vermont.

After a five-hour ride, we arrived and got out of the car, and I walked into the cabin first, with my daughter just behind me carrying our surprise gift for Grandma. I kissed my mother hello and stepped to the side. My mother took one look at Rizzo and, without missing a beat, said, “That better be yours.” The rest of that weekend, we attempted to persuade my mother to keep the cat. Needless to say, we failed, and I returned home with MY new cat. How long do cats live for? I asked myself.

Foresight is Rarely 20/20

I really didn’t see that turn of events coming. My size-up was faulty. My perception of what was going to occur did not match reality. So now, 10 years later, I’ve learned to love Rizzo and affectionately refer to her as my “dat,” that is a cat who thinks she is a dog. When I get home, Rizzo jumps from wherever she is in the house to greet me at my front door or window. Now she’s a cat, so I know it’s a conditional love, as she wants me to feed her (constantly). Then again, like a dog she follows me around the house and sits on my lap every chance she gets.

Unfortunately, Rizzo has developed cancer and after two operations it keeps coming back. As she’s nearing the end of her life, I’m trying to spoil her and make her as comfortable as possible while maintaining situational awareness for signs that she may be in pain or suffering.

Don’t Fight Mother Nature

Instinctually, Rizzo has resorted to lying in a corner of my radiant heated kitchen floor. I’ve learned that she’s doing this to protect herself from predators. She realizes, through thousands of years of evolution, that she is vulnerable and has limited strength.

Today when I came home from a 24-hour shift, she met me at the door as usual but almost immediately retreated to her kitchen safety zone. I attempted to coax her out to spend some quality time with her. After sitting for a short time, she gingerly jumped off my lap and headed under the coffee table, again for protection. I lay on the floor and tried again to get her to come out, no luck. Just then it hit me, BAM! Her instincts were overcoming her desire or need to be comforted by me. Her instincts overruled her heart and brain’s want for affection, and she listened to those instincts.

Primal Urges

I am certainly not an expert on what animals can reason in their minds. However, from what I’ve read and always heard, that’s supposedly what separates humans from wild beasts. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from them. Rizzo is giving into her primal instincts to protect herself. As chiefs and company officers, we need to listen to and go with our instincts (or gut feelings) much more often. If something doesn’t feel right then it’s not, so do something about it! All too often when confronted with an uncomfortable feeling, we set out to reason in our head and our heart to come up with an appropriate response. In administrative matters that may work to avoid knee-jerk reactions. However, if we follow our instincts, they will usually guide us to what is the correct answer.

Multiple Guess

It is a well-documented and statistically proven fact that on multiple-choice tests humans sometimes follow their instincts to answer a given question, only to start questioning it and reasoning it out in their minds; then they change the answer from a correct choice (instinct’s choice) to an incorrect choice (their overthinking mind’s choice). On a multiple-choice test, the only time you should change an answer is when you know 100 percent that you made a mistake (perhaps circling or coloring in choice B when we meant to color in choice C, etc.). Otherwise, 90 percent of the time we change a correct answer to an incorrect one.

Proof Is In The Pudding

Recently, I became the president of my volunteer company. One of my best friends in the company came to me asking to appoint him as the sergeant at arms. This individual was just removed from his “trustee” position because he didn’t meet the requirements. As such, he wanted the sergeant at arms position to help him acquire enough Length of Service Award Program (LOSAP) points for the year which he might not otherwise make (LOSAP is a volunteer retirement benefit in New York State).

The issue is that there is a junior member already in that position, and he’s doing a good job at it. Besides being friends with the senior member, there’s no reason to remove the junior member whatsoever.

I wrestled with this predicament for a few days. My gut instinct told me that giving into my friend’s request for no other reason than our friendship was wrong. What kind of a message would that send to the junior member and the rest of the members? When I approached my friend with my decision, he was clearly disappointed. He took it as a blow to our friendship. “I’d do it for you,” he said. That’s when I got a little perturbed with him and I shot back, “I wouldn’t have asked!”

I calmed down and explained to him what I was thinking and how I came to my decision and that I know it was the right one. I followed my instincts. I didn’t lose my friend over it; our company didn’t lose or alienate the junior member; and we showed integrity and trust in doing the right thing – not by my friend, but by the junior member doing the job.


Instincts also came into play at two recent working fires to which I responded. I was the second-due (operations) chief at both fires, and they were eerily similar and only a few weeks apart. The first was a basement fire in a commercial taxpayer or strip mall that contained six businesses. When I arrived, the incident commander (IC) had just transmitted a second alarm because of the large amount of fire, with possible extension in two exposed multiple dwellings on either side and another in the rear. After checking in, I made my way into the building to supervise the interior firefight. Shortly after I entered, there was a minor ceiling collapse that exposed a tremendous amount of fire in the cockloft area. I radioed an urgent message to the IC with this observation. He ordered a forthwith withdrawal from the interior of the building and from the roof. He then transmitted a third alarm and ordered an immediate roll call [personnel accountability report (PAR)] of every unit operating on the scene starting with the most exposed companies first.

After conducting a rapid survey to ensure everyone was out of the building and following the members out to the street, I again reported in to the IC. He explained that he was getting a bad feeling about the situation. After receiving my urgent message about the extension into the cockloft, fire also showed itself through the roof followed by another urgent message of fire in the exposure and an immediate need for a handline at that location. Now, the IC could’ve reasoned out in his mind that the fire at the roof level was coming from well-placed ventilation holes and that the fire in the cockloft wasn’t uncommon or unexpected at these types of occupancies. Fortunately, his instincts – based on experience, education, and knowledge – told him that the fire was starting to win the battle and that he had firefighters under, above, and around the advancing fire in dangerous and vulnerable positions. He followed his instincts and pulled the plug. Although all six businesses were ultimately lost, we did save the exposed buildings (each of which suffered fire extension) and, after a total of six alarms, brought the fire under control without one injury to firefighters.

Take Two

The second fire was a large (one-story, 200 feet wide by 100 feet deep, Class 3 ordinary construction) single-occupancy commercial building. The fire was in the basement. On my arrival, there was one 2½-inch hoseline going into the basement through a sidewalk entrance, and a ladder company was also in the basement working off a search rope. A second 2½-inch hoseline was being stretched. This IC told me crews hadn’t found the fire yet and that he had ordered an additional engine and ladder company to the scene.

Making my way down into the basement, I thought for sure this was going to be at least a second-alarm fire. Just as I got to the bottom of the stairs, the engine company officer radioed that they had found the fire in the exposure “3/4” (C/D) corner and were beginning to get water on it. At about the same time, the ladder company officer crawled over to me and said there were two officers going in the rear and that we needed a second line. He also advised me that with water on the fire his company was commencing the primary search of the entire basement.

I forwarded the reports to the IC as the second hoseline came down the stairs and headed toward the rear to help extinguish the fire. Once the fire was knocked down and the searches and overhaul completed, the smoke started to clear and I made my way to the command post. As I approached, I was surprised to see only the IC and one ladder company there. Where was everyone else? Where were all those second alarm and specialty units? Where was the deputy chief?

The IC was in the process of conducting a PAR and was preparing to start releasing companies. I asked him why he didn’t transmit a second alarm. With more than 31 years of experience, and listening to and following his instincts, based on the positive reports from the basement and the ladder company searching on the first floor (medium to heavy smoke condition, minimal heat, and no fire extension), the IC felt that we were going to get this one in short order.

For my own sake, I asked him what would have triggered him to transmit another alarm. He said, matter of factly, that if there was a delay in finding the seat of the fire or getting water on it or any report or indication of fire extension into the first floor then that would’ve been it. Great! An experience that I can add into my instinct-controlled memory bank.

Inner Voices

As a result of our experiences, instincts have facts to compare before kicking us in the behind to make a decision. Listen to your instincts. If you ever feel that things aren’t going in the right directions – they’re not! Do something about it! If your instincts tell you things are going well (or at least in a positive direction) and you’re comfortable with the progress (either at an emergency or with an administrative matter), be comfortable with your decisions and do the right thing. As Fire Department of New York Captain Vernon Richard of Tower Ladder 7 often said, prior to his death on September 11, 2001: “You can never do right, wrong.”