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Part One – The Mistake

It started innocently enough, just another day in a long stretch of multi-day shifts. The duty crew was settling in for a fitful sleep. Reading lights glowed in small, spartan rooms. Each member of the service reading, texting, or relaxing, near rest but still on the edge of adrenaline known to those who answer the bell.

A television played quietly in the communal room near the back of the station. Jimmy Fallon was doing his usual “laugh too hard at his guest’s every comment” routine. The last few unpopped kernels of Skinny Girl popcorn (with sea salt) sat at the bottom of an old takeout carton from Robin’s. The empty cans of Red Bull lay in the recycle bin. The unique nightlight, thoughtfully provided for the new reserve who had not quite settled into the firehouse environment, glowed softly. Above the beacon sat the station’s whiteboard, tagged with a series of “To Do’s” and “who left the taco sauce uncovered???” complaints written in different colored dry erase markers. Each shift had their color, but as the ink ran dry, everything was captured in that washed-out red/orange/maybe blue color that showed the effects of being dipped in a glass of (non-potable) water to eke out one more scribble.

Times are tight in this tightly run department.

The night turned to morning, just as surely as Fallon turned into Seth Meyers. In the half-light of dawn, a still-groggy first responder shuffled into the kitchen to begin the daily routine. Perhaps it was the lack of uninterrupted sleep. A half-remembered exchange between Meyers and guest Patton Oswalt had him rustling through grey matter, trying to recall the “Ratatouille” punch line that had the audience roaring. Add to all of this slightly impaired vision; an unintended by-product of the commando-style blue blocker sunglasses donned to aid against the rapidly growing sunlight that sliced through the novelty Smokey The Bear window curtains.

In this almost awake and kind of confused state, an error occurred; A mistake that started a chain of events that still reverberates to this day.

The after-action report laid it all out in clinical fashion. But it was neither clinical or fashionable. But first, the mistake.

One Job

As highly trained, experienced professionals, the ability to multi-task, even under stressful conditions, was a source of pride for all the crew. The relatively simple and routine morning tasks – wake, pee, wash, and brew – required little thought. Of course, mixing up these steps can prove both embarrassing and potentially sickening. This theory was tested- severely tested.

Reach into the container, remove contents. Put contents into the machine. Start machine. Pee again. Wash. Wait for the aroma that shouts “READY!!!”

The shout that eventually came was not what anyone expected.

In a groggy fog, the first responder made a terrible, nearly unimaginable mistake. He went out of sequence, mixed up container one with container two, and accidentally put the coffee beans where the Tide Pod was supposed to go.

Suddenly, the station was flooded with luke-warm latte.

At the same time, The Chief, still agitated from his commute, took his first sip of what he thought was morning coffee. Bubbles flew from his mouth as he attempted to spit out the soap while yelling “Maalooonnneeeeyyyy!!!!!!!!!” All the stain-fighting power of that tiny pod couldn’t clean up the language that flew that fateful morning.

Part Two – A Dank Place   

It didn’t take long for the leak to spread throughout the house. Possessions were submerged. Critical documents were soaked and smeared. Slippers squished, and flip flops floated. It was a mess of epic proportions. A choked expletive escaped from an Engineer as he picked up his latest copy of “Tattoo Today – Heart on My Sleeve.” The colorfully printed pages had fused in a wet wavy clot. Lost for all time were the handwritten notations placed in the margins just hours earlier. Now, there were just runny, swirly lines where thoughtful comments like “cool – I wonder if it will fit in that special place” and “nice, but I like my Keep on Truckin’ guy better” once stood.

Across the hall, the leadership team came together to develop a plan of attack. In an intense brainstorming scrum, ideas were floated and discarded.

“Maybe we can get a sh*tload of donuts to soak up the spill?” “

“No, not donuts – too much sugar. How about rice cakes?”

“Hmmm, maybe, but I think Dan ate the last bag yesterday.”

“Ok, Ok. We need a solution RIGHT NOW!!! Everybody, grab a towel, a mop, an old tee shirt from Pinedorodo 2014, anything that will absorb moisture.”

“Ryan – get the mop. Michael – get the roll of Bounty from under the sink.  Other Michael – put down the tattoo magazine – it’s gone. We need to focus!!!! And for the love of everything holy, somebody call Dan and have him pick up some more rice cakes from Albertsons.”

The crew sprang into action, determined to get the upper hand in the battle of the bilge. Obstacles and impediments were moved to the side, clearing a path that would serve as a bridge from which teams could work. To the left, a shift captain quickly had his crew working to soak up the now-bitter coffee/water. Getting into the spirit of close teamwork, a firefighter began softly whistling; others soon joined her, whistling louder and with more enthusiasm.

B shift, working from the other side of the path, took up the challenge and began their own musical rally cry, substituting humming for whistling. The station filled with whistles and hums, so powerful that nobody heard the loud crackle of the radio.

(A second after-action report determined that everyone thought it was merely the sound of Jiffy Pop being made by an eager-to-please member of the FireSafe Focus group, who had mixed up the meeting dates and showed up in the middle of the mess. Subsequentially, A new procedure was put in place, known as the Shirley Rule, which calls for at least two radios to be equipped with an audible, human-voiced alert yelling “ We ain’t poppin’ so you need to get hoppin’!” to alert the crew to an actual call.)

Thankfully, the radio call was just a message from Dan, letting everyone know that Albertson’s had rice cakes on sale, and he had a coupon. Budget saved!

Part Three – Word Spreads

The crews worked valiantly to contain and repair what the flood had wrought. Despite their efforts, the job was just too big, too involved. They needed help, and they needed it quickly.

Surveying the situation, The Chief realized what he had to do. He sighed heavily, took another sip of soapy water, bellowed again, and headed out to his truck.

He turned the key in the ignition, knowing things were about to get even more challenging. He inched his command vehicle forward, looking both left and right before pulling into the busy roadway. No turning back now, he thought to himself. He guided the truck down the winding road, past the Lodge, and towards town. As he turned left on Main Street, a thought jolted him, and he exclaimed, “I hope Dan got the good rice cakes and not that store brand crap.” It was out of his hands; he just had to trust that years of leadership training would lead Captain Dan to the right shelf. And that the coupon was still valid.

The Meeting

Chief pulled into the parking lot of the Vet’s Hall, knowing that the report he was about to give might be shocking and sobering to the regular attendees. He had updated the Board and public many times in his tenure with the department. This one would be different. No amount of slides, no stream of acronyms and codes would provide him cover. He had to let the town know that disaster had struck, and what he was doing about it.

The video was rolling.  Allegiance was pledged. The sheriff’s commander was there to give his readout and immediately sensed that something was wrong. Chief didn’t seem quite himself. He smelled slightly of lukewarm latte and soapsuds. Not an entirely unpleasant combination, the sheriff thought, but not what he had come to expect.

When he was called to present his report, Chief took a minute and found his center, calming himself before striding confidently to the podium. He hadn’t noticed, but a contingent of off-duty members, as well as a few ambulance guys, Jerry McKinnon, and for some reason that kid from the Cookie Crock had filed into the meeting space, standing shoulder to shoulder in support of the Chief, knowing his update might not sit well with some of the usual suspects.

It was a touching sight, though it was a bit distracting to hear a voice loudly whispering “Hey, I can’t see…what’s happening now???” The line separated just enough so that the blocked captain could better see the proceedings.

The Report

The Chief began his report, only to be interrupted by a few shouts of “we can’t hear you, turn the microphone on…not, the button…the other button…” Finally, levels were corrected, and he began.

“Mr. President, members of the board and staff, community and the Cookie Crock guy, I had a prepared presentation, which can be found in the agenda packet. However, I need to pre-empt myself and give you an update on a bit of a problem we experienced at the station.”

And he told them everything. The mistake. The wavy clot of magazines. The bridge, the whistling, and the Jiffy Pop. He spared them nothing. Sensing the moment was near, he told them about the mocha mixup and the bubbles. So many bubbles. In a scene reminiscent of Brando in “Streetcar,” he bellowed, as he had bellowed that very morning, “Maalooonnneeeeyyyy!!!!!!!!!”

The crowd was stunned into silence. They had no idea the Chief had those acting chops. Snatches of excited whispering were heard. “He needs to star in the next Follies!”

NOOOOOO!!!

From all the chatter rose a solitary, insistent voice. The sound terrifying and chilling, the noise akin to every alarm in the county sounding at once. Everyone froze, except for the Cookie Crock guy, who figured his break was over and he better get back to work.

“OUTRAGED!!! I AM OUTRAGED!!! REALLY REALLY REALLY OUTRAGED!!! I AM NOT EVEN SURE WHY, BUT DAMMIT I AM OUTRAGED!!!!! I DEMAND THAT WHATEVER HAS HAPPENED, WHOEVER IS RESPONSIBLE, WHATEVER THE PLAN, THAT WE FIND THE LAST GENERAL MANAGER, WHEREVER HE IS, AND BRING HIM HERE SO WE CAN FIRE HIM AGAIN!!!!!” DID I MENTION I AM OUTRAGED?????”

It could be only one voice, one force of nature that could create such a tsunami of sound. The keeper of all things outrage had spoken.

But…

For once, the usually reliable crowd did not rise in support of the outraged. Instead, the good people of the town put their heads together and started churning out helpful suggestions. It was quite a transformational moment until things got a bit testy when “someone” was reminded that the whole rice cake thing had already been discussed. Beyond that one small flareup, no good ideas surfaced.

No Capes Needed

Amid the discussion, the Chief and his supporters quietly filed out. They got in their vehicles and headed back to the station. They were people of action, and there was work to be done. And Dan should have returned with the rice cakes, and, the gods willing, a box from Dolly’s Donuts would have found its way home.

Sent with great appreciation and affection for Cambria’s Bravest.