Improvisation and the Jaws of Life

Improvising and being creative in real time under pressure is a skill that we appreciate in the arts such as music and theater. We also admire athletes who develop an ability to ‘read the game’- especially a fast paced sport such as basketball or hockey. However, when I started researching improvisation for business applications I came across applications of its use in other professions as well.

One of the earliest and most interesting stories is Mann Gulch; where there was a very large forest fire in Montana in 1949. An experienced wilderness Firefighter, Wagner Dodge (great name for a firefighting hero), found himself and his crew surrounded by a wildfire. Conventional training at the time would have suggested that their best method of escape was to try to outrun the fire (some did try this- without success unfortunately). Dodge, however, improvised a solution to save his men: He started a new fire and he and his men took refuge in the burned away area as the larger fire raged past them and they managed to survive thanks to his quick thinking.

This is just one of many examples of how improvisation is utilized in non-traditional, non-arts environments. Corporations, for example, also often use an improvisation based process called ‘Wild Card Theory’ [Frank Ruff 2004] to prepare for unforeseen disasters like contaminated food, scandal, etc. In my opinion, of all the applications of improvisation out there, the most crucial is in the emergency services. I spoke with Dwayne Macintosh the Fire Chief and former head of the Fire and Emergency Services Training Institute (FESTI) at Toronto Pearson International Airport about how improvisation plays a part in how they train firefighters to use the Jaws of Life when they face the challenge of extrication at a crash scene.

Personally I never wanted to be a fireman ‘when I grow up.’ When I was young, my mother was the secretary to the Fire Chief and it was the stories of bravery and destruction that affirmed my decision that whatever I ‘grew up’ to do I did not want to have life or death be the consequence of my decisions or actions. It takes a special kind of person to risk their life for a stranger, and as an adult with a family I appreciate all the more the selfless acts of firefighters, policemen, soldiers and EMS workers. I do still feel a rush of anxiety before a speaking engagement or workshop begins, but at least no one’s life is at stake if the projector doesn’t work.

The modern firefighter faces an incredible amount of challenges when he or she arrives at a vehicle accident scene. No two situations are the same, the amount of cars, the number of people involved, environmental factors, stability, etc always differ. It is a combination of good training, communication and solid procedure that allows firefighters to quickly evaluate the situation and engage in the procedures that will lead to an effective solution. According to Dwayne Macintosh everyone has a job to do; whether it is to stabilize the vehicles, determine the mechanisms of injury, or to ascertain extraction options, everyone has a specific part to play to ensure that the team functions quickly and effectively.

The designated expert in charge of the Jaws of Life faces a twisted wreck of metal and has the task of safely removing a person. The assignment has life and death implications. As an added challenge, the vehicle itself presents a formidable test; each model and year have different airbag configurations and pretension systems. These pose a very real danger for both the passenger and the firefighter. If a line is cut or an airbag triggered the blast from the shotgun like mechanism or the airbag itself can seriously injure either party. And if that’s not enough, hybrid and electric automobiles contain high voltage lines embedded in the car frame.

No matter what their job, when it comes to creating a solution, the firefighters rely on other members of the team, on their training, creativity, and the ability to remain calm under pressure. Essentially, the firefighter is improvising under an enormous amount of pressure. I wanted to explore how Dwayne Macintosh and his team prepare these rescuers to improvise under such circumstances. Throughout our conversation, I was struck by the amount of times Dwayne mentioned improvisation and creativity, as being vital tools both during the training process and at the scene of an accident.

Training at the Fire and Emergency Services Training Institute (FESTI) addresses improvisation and creativity in four basic areas. First, being creative with the tools; second, being sufficiently calm to think creativity and act confidently; thirdly, being able to assess the situation and finally; having the ability to shift focus between narrow and broad depending on the task at hand.

Being Creative with the tools. Understanding the capabilities and limitations of the Jaws of Life and other rescue tools is critical. Firefighters train extensively so that at a scene they know what the tools at hand are capable of and how best to use them. During the advanced training at FESTI, trainees chop and mangle wreck after simulated wreck to better understand the capabilities of the tools. From a creativity and improv perspective, when training and functionality become second nature, more options are available because the focus is not wasted on how the tools work, but rather is used for more creative problem-solving. From a neuroscience viewpoint, the ability to use the tools move from short term memory to longer term memory as the neural pathways are reinforced with training. Again, this frees up cognitive space for situation evaluation, seeing creative solutions and then executing them.

Being sufficiently calm to think creativity and act confidently. Once a firefighter understands the tools and has learned to use them, they face the challenge of being emotionally affected by the accident scene. The strategy here is focusing on the process. Dwayne Macintosh trains firefighters to focus their attention on the job at hand, the next step in the process is so ingrained that even under tremendous pressure the firefighters do not overlook safety factors, possible solutions or hidden dangers. Strategies to remain calm like breathing exercises, centering techniques and small routines to focus are also taught. This step is especially important when a scene is first being evaluated. It is dangerous to make assumptions or act without a strategy; Macintosh calls this action without thought ‘freelancing’ and it is extremely dangerous to the individual and the team. Trainees at FESTI are constantly challenged by random drills and tests to simulate the real pressure they will face at an accident scene, so that when a real-life situation arises, they know how to stay in the moment and focus on the next step in the process.

When we let pressure, panic or fear override our response, our body’s reaction becomes our greatest barrier to success. In a stressful or ‘fight or flight’ situation our body releases adrenaline which triggers a long list of physiological responses which include; a reduction of blood flow to the brain, auditory exclusion (loss of hearing), and tunnel vision (loss of peripheral vision). Research also shows that even if the circumstances do not push us as far as ‘fight or flight’ we can easily assume a ‘avoid or threat’ frame of mind. Overall executive brain functions decrease, perception is reduced (which is required for non-linear thinking, effective problem-solving, insight and discovery) and a decrease in the willingness to collaborate is exhibited [David Rock 2008]. Through training and experience, firefighters develop strategies to keep calm so that they can think clearly enough to use all of the tangible and psychological tools at their disposal.

Assess the situation. Clear and concise communication is paramount to assessing the accident scene. The first arriving Officer will assume control of the situation and assign tasks to team members. The Officer will assess the scene by doing an outer and inner circle walk around. The team relies on each for information about the mechanisms of injury, safety conditions, and stability. The firefighter assigned to the extraction process relies on the team for input inside the vehicle as well; such as which airbags have been deployed amongst other potential safety or medical concerns.

Often in business we find it hard to accept situations as they are. Manipulation of the facts is often the pathway to trouble. A great case in point is the 2008 US bank failures. Anton Valukas, the examiner hired by a US court to probe the Lehman Brothers collapse into bankruptcy, states in his report that ‘Lehman and some affiliates were already insolvent at various times in 2008 leading up to its bankruptcy filing.” Their refusal to accept reality lead to the exclusion of high risk investments in its risk usage calculation.

I have witnessed this denial or re-shaping of reality in organizations time and time again. “If we just tell our clients how great our product is, they will jump at the chance to buy.” In improvisation terms the ‘yes and’ premise helps improvisers on stage to accept what is being presented to them in the form of an ‘offer’ and equips them with the ability move the scene forward. In both improvisation and firefighting, a high level of team trust is paramount to accept the current state reality and to advance the situation toward a solution.

The ability to shift focus between narrow and broad depending on the task at hand. Assessing the accident scene also includes the ability to shift focus from the big picture view (broad external awareness) to a more narrowly focused attention to a specific action. Everyone has this ability, however some people are faster at switching between attentional channels than others are- and we all have our preferred channels [Bob Nideffer 1976]. Much of the training is focused on simulations that require this shift in focus, so that firefighters can experience in practice what it is like and are more ready to apply this attention shifting ability to real life situations.

When the long hours of training are complete and a firefighter accepts the challenge presented by the wreck to save lives, Dwayne Macintosh has one last piece of advice. “You are only limited by your imagination”.

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