Friendly Fire

There are two kinds of people in this world: those who run away from a fire with fear on their faces, and those who run into fire, smiling. After years of conditioning as the former, I jumped at the opportunity to live a day in the life of the latter.

The scene: Training grounds of the Fire Department of New York, or FDNY, the world’s second largest municipal fire department. The task: Save lives and extinguish fires. As we put on those firefighter suits, oxygen cylinders, masks and helmets in preparation for a day of firefighting exercises, adrenaline rushed into every vein. As the captains and chiefs led us through the “evolutions” (FDNY’s term for fire exercises/simulations), we felt how they feel. We acted the way they act. We began to believe what they have believed for more than a century—saving lives is good, but it’s better when you accomplish it as a team.

We learned the four pillars to success: leadership, teamwork, trust and communication. We had heard these terms a million times in the classroom, but they found new meaning as we tackled daunting situations. I faced my fear of heights as I dangled from the top of a building, clutching a rope held by my teammate, and I realized the meaning of trust. I crawled into a dark tunnel with no end in sight, hitting walls, dirt and obstacles, while being responsible for finding civilians and guiding my claustrophobic teammates out safe and sound.

I learned the importance of communication. My team entered a room blazing with fire and smoke, a heavy hose in our hands with only our abilities and coordination to trust, and we understood what it meant to move forward as a team. Eight of us were brought on to save lives on a bomb-blast scene with hidden live detonators. We roamed mindlessly, stepping on bombs and bringing back corpses instead of the living; we were left clueless and failed miserably.

And we learned a crucial lesson on leadership under crisis.

At the end of the day, each of us took away something unique. For some, it was the four pillars that would be the foundation of our teams and businesses. For others, it was new self-awareness as leaders and team members. For yet others, it was an opportunity to face our fears and come out triumphant. But for all of us, it was a day of newly found respect for the men and women around the world fighting to save lives with silent humility.

Now every time a fire engine passes by with its alarm ringing, it’s not just another vehicle to me. It’s a mission with my wishes, respect and spirit riding along.

(Editor’s note: This post first appeared in its original form on the MBA Program’s Student Diarists blog on March 31, 2012.) 

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