Not My Emergency: Book Review

9 mins read

I grabbed this book on a whim. After I finished Report from Engine Company 82, I just started browsing Amazon for firefighter memoirs to read. Not My Emergency fell into my lap with a little help from the Amazon algorithm.

I was told via multiple online posts that 82 was the starting point for fire-service reading. As a result of finishing that book, I’ve taken away a key phrase. When the author – the late Dennis Smith – is describing how he can give so much of his time, money and effort toward the department despite it’s challenges, he gives a simple answer.

I have something to contribute.

Dennis Smith

The book arrived as the rest of my Amazon purchases do. Right on time.

How do they even do that, anyway?

A Canadian volunteer

Not My Emergency is a self-published collection of stories, thoughts and ideas from Ian McLaren. It’s well put together and has a perfect-bound cover that evokes a particular feeling. This book isn’t going to be a glorious title – the imagery is dark and brooding. The subtitle reads ‘the (double) life of a volunteer firefighter’. This is probably where the hooks sank in for me. I’m interested to read about other volunteer experiences. When I scrolled down to find out the author is a fellow Canadian, I hit the buy button.

Credit: @livingbyyyz on IG

The book begins by telling a story about a call Ian experienced that pulled him away from some cherished family time. He continues to outline the duality of his roles. On one hand, a father and principal. On the other, a volunteer firefighter.

That junction is retold a few times through the book with examples of how these roles both amalgamate his personality and drive elements of it apart. I think that experience is probably shared with many volunteer firefighters and Ian does a good job of putting those feelings into well written words. He’s quick to draw lines of comparison between volunteer and career firefighters. Just the same, he sees a clear distinction between the two that hinges on that balancing act between his roles. Not My Emergency is a book for volunteer firefighters from a volunteer firefighter. He’s unapologetically prideful of the work his department is responsible for.

Calls in a small town

McLaren has held a number of roles in a number of rural departments. In some of the stories he recounts, the urgency is vibrant and alive. In others, you can sense the calamity he faces as some of his students are involved. A chapter on his experience of watching the September 11th terrorist attacks unfold from the middle of Alberta, Canada makes me reflect on my own experience.

His thoughts on training and the volunteer fire service are adjacent to mine. It’s a challenge to retain people for anything. Add to that a level of ‘expectation’ and watch the numbers dwindle. I’d add, though, that anybody volunteering their time, effort and possibly everything else ought to be specifically interested in training. Even if that means creating opportunities for yourself to train – however small – where none currently exist. This is not a hobby.

For a time when volunteering for the local fire brigade meant being handed a pager and told to appear next Monday night, Ian was lucky to watch his local fire departments grow into a more standardized, formal training regimen. After some time, the NFPA standards grew to attach to his department. Soon after, positions would appear to allow for training officers and more focused classes on things like vehicle extrication and trench rescue. Ian himself would find himself to be a local go-to for the vehicle-ex side of things. He mentions the waves of imposter syndrome he experienced. A familiar if frustrating theme for many people – first responders or not.

Good plans, bad outcomes

Where I feel the Not My Emergency argument begins is through a chapter that details a specific call. On this scene, Ian and his crew just couldn’t work out a good fix. Or, there were multiple plans and attempts, but layers of failure impeded their progress until they finally broke through. After that, the book opens eventually to the core of the title’s argument. Similarly, another chapter outlines a number of points McLaren puts forward as his real teachables from his years of service.

The first point is aptly titled ‘Look again at the title of this book’.

Above all, I think I understand Ian’s point. I believe he’s trying to say that emergency scenes require our attention and empathy, but we have to be careful not to attach ourselves emotionally to the outcomes of those scenes. Or at least, we have to try to maintain a degree of separation from the events on the scene in order to not be overtaken by them. However, delivery is everything.

At a traumatic scene, it helps to look at the job in front of you and focus on that. Seeing the person who is hurting and acknowledging their pain and fear is important, but their suffering is not our burden.

Ian McLaren, Not My Emergency

I had to sit on that quote for a few nights. In summary, I believe his argument is well thought out and comprehensively written. Something about it though – and particularly that line I’ve quoted above – just doesn’t sit with me right. I suppose he’s right, overall. We shouldn’t carry the weight of our patients actual suffering. Then again, aren’t we there to do something like that?

Not my emergency – but should it be?

I think it’s a phrasing issue. Not my emergency is an abrasive way to explain empathy. At best, it’s disconnecting us from exposure to traumatic scenes. At worst, it’s a vector for decision making that plays against the reason most of us initially volunteered to respond in the first place. Ian’s book was a challenging read in that way. I wanted to wrestle this idea in a write-up once I broke into the book because of that – it’s a hard thing to reconcile.

As much as I could agree with McLaren about his concept of balancing what you can give during an emergency scene, I disagree with his notion that there could be an enough to the tail end of that statement. I recognize that everybody will have a different lens from which their personal enough is born from, too. That’s the hard part.

A worthwhile read from a Canadian firefighter of many roles

Not My Emergency is a book for firefighters. There are segments about balancing family and work obligations and a full chapter written from his wife’s hand as well. There are leadership questions and notes about the importance of decon. There’s challenging philosophical writing too – and if you’re truly interested in personal growth, you should be seeking the more difficult perspective. Doing so will enable you to embolden your own view and tint your lens from another.

Grab your copy of Not My Emergency by Ian McLaren right here!

Bill Dungey is a volunteer firefighter in Ontario, Canada. He is focused on fitness, mindset development and finding training opportunities to help the fire service make things better.

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