Check for Fire, Check for Flood


If there’s anything good about an event like Hurricane Irene, it’s a reminder of what a real life-threatening crisis is compared to the day-to-day events that, while significant, probably don’t require full-scale emergency response. It also brings to light any changes we need to make to our preparedness (like I should have had extra cat litter on hand for my feline go-bag and a few more flashlights).


Limbs down from Hurricane Irene behind "Borders" installation in Dag Hammarskjold Plaza

When I was in junior high, my cousin was in the U.S. Coast Guard and was stationed in Governor’s Island, so I saw him quite frequently when he was on leave. If I recall correctly, he was a Fireman, which is more an engineering function than an emergency responder. When I grilled him about his duties, he described his routine of going around each part of the ship, starting with, “Check for fire, check for flood.” As a pre-teen, I thought this was hilarious. How would you not know there was a fire or a flood? But strangely, those words have resonated around my head quite a bit through the years.

I don’t know if this is how the Coast Guard intended it, but the phrase now makes sense to me in two ways. First, it’s a reframing technique: No fire? No flood? No immediate crisis that is going to sink the ship? OK, then whatever else is going wrong is not so bad. I worked briefly with Don Middleberg in the late ‘90s, and he liked to remind us as we’d fret when a communications crisis loomed: “It’s PR, not ER.” It’s rare that one is dealing with true life-threatening situation. Keep things in perspective.

Second, it’s a reminder to look around and open closed doors to find out if something needs to be addressed.  A small fire is a lot easier to contain; a major breach can start with a small leak. What’s happening in areas of your business – or your life – that’s behind a metaphorical closed door?

Most people will pay attention to a fire, no matter how small, but puddles are another matter. I’m a big fan of Stephen Covey’s First Things First and the lesson of paying attention to the “Quadrant 2- Important but Not Urgent” stuff. Do you keep applying duct tape to a real or figurative leak thinking you’ll properly fix the crack later? What will be the scale of the damage if that crack blows open tomorrow?

Here in NYC, it looks like Irene will pass over without too much drama in my neighborhood. But I’m definitely thinking ahead; hurricane season isn’t over for another month or so. More cat litter will be purchased as soon as Litter & Leashes is back open.

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