How Not to Be an A-hole When…

…Rescuing People from Burning Buildings


Ok, so you run into a burning apartment building with smoke everywhere and fire alarm blaring to get people out. You bang on doors yelling “police! Fire! Get out!” Finally, after banging on a door someone opens the door and says “yes? What’s going on?” How do you not be an asshole in your response? Basically, how do you not be an asshole first responder when people are being dumb in emergencies?

First, I’m going to push back a little on the idea that people are being ‘dumb.’ Not trying to disagree with your experience, but I want you to adjust your thinking on this for a minute. What if instead of assuming people are being ‘dumb,’ maybe consider they are just being oblivious?

I think in so many instances – including possibly this one – people are just in their own world, and think that what’s going on maybe just doesn’t apply to them.

I liken it to the people who let the building door swing shut just as I get to the threshold. They are in their world, and their world only involves them and the door. They didn’t take the time to look behind them to see if they were about to send a few pounds of glass into my face, because I don’t exist in their world. They aren’t unclear about how doors work; they just aren’t paying attention.

But I do get your point: there’s an emergency, people aren’t responding in the way you want (or need) them to, and you want to get them to get the fuck out of the burning building!

First off, yelling ‘police!’ anywhere and then banging on a door might not go over well with a lot of people. If someone pounds on my door yelling police, I’m going to have some questions, because I live in the U.S., and (not sure if you’ve heard), sometimes the police here totally fuck up. Go to the wrong homes, shoot the wrong people (not that they should be shooting anyone), etc. So, consider that the person in the apartment or house may be getting up some courage to even answer the door in the midst of fear and chaos, and may already be understandably primed to not trust you.

Second, I suggest fighting the urge to respond with “What do you mean, idiot? Do you not hear the alarms? What’s your problem? THERE’S A FIRE IN HERE!” Most people do not like being questioned or told they are fucking up, and certainly not with a scream from a stranger, even if she is in a uniform. And so instead of focusing on the moment at hand, they get defensive and may be less likely to listen to the important instructions you’re sharing.

While it may seem ridiculous in such a dire moment, my suggestion is to respond with “I’m sorry to pound on your door, but there is a fire in the building / bomb on this bus / mountain lion loose in the stairwell so we are helping get everyone out. I’m not sure when you’ll be able to come back to your home, but your safety is at risk if you stay.” That way you are asking them to do something but, more importantly, telling them WHY you are asking them to do that.

And why is that important? Because people like to know what’s going on. I remember in driver’s education (so many years ago), the instructor said “when you see someone’s brake lights ahead, your first instinct isn’t going to be to step on the brakes, it’s going to be to ask ‘why are they braking?'” I thought that was utterly ridiculous. My first concern is going to be stopping safely, obviously.

But the thing is: it’s true. I mean, I get there eventually even if I don’t know why they are braking (I don’t have a habit of just ramming into cars because I don’t get why they stopped), but my first thought is in fact “why are they braking?” It’s bizarre, but it’s real, so it’s best to acknowledge and work with it.

So, the next time you need people to listen to you, tell them what you want, tell them why they should do it, and don’t question why they didn’t figure it out in the first place. Hopefully once they are safely on the street, watching the building burn, they’ll think ‘shit, I should really take the fire alarms more seriously.’

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