Community Courage: Lessons from Oso

After 36 years as a firefighter and a police officer, Bruce Stedman thought he'd seen it all. After the mudslide, he realized he was very, very wrong.
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After 36 years as a firefighter and a police officer, Bruce Stedman thought he'd seen it all. After the mudslide, he realized he was very, very wrong.

Editor's Note: This essay is part of a series on courage that will run in advance of Crosscut's second annual "Courage Awards" ceremony on October 23rd.

I have spent the last 36 years in Public Safety, most of it in southern California. During that time, I have worked alongside very courageous men and women in both fire and police departments. I thought I had seen it all. As it turns out, I was very, very wrong.

In December 2010, I moved to Snohomish County and assumed the position of Fire Chief with the City of Arlington. On March 22, 2014, my wife and I were on our way to Tacoma to visit family when I got a call to respond to a large mudslide in Oso, which had reportedly devastated an area of one square mile, including three blocks of homes. In the early hours we had no way of knowing how many lives were threatened or lost. Our local emergency resources were quickly overwhelmed as we conducted search and rescue operations on the mud field. It was extremely difficult to move around in the muck and mud to try to locate any survivors. 

As a firefighter (and eventually chief) of the Alhambra Fire Department in California, I responded to thousands of emergencies, from earthquakes and firestorms to the 1992 Los Angeles Riots. I have watched firefighters run into burning buildings billowing smoke to perform rescue and suppression operations, and seen police officers rushing to the aid of reported gunshot victims and systematically searching the structure for an unaccounted shooter. I have always been impressed with the commitment and courage of the officers and firefighters I worked with over the years.

But in the first days and weeks of the Oso disaster it was not the courage of the firefighters, police officers and other emergency workers that impressed me. It was the courage of the family members and community members who rushed to the scene to help.

We in public safety spend many more hours training for serious incidents like the Oso mudslide then we do actually responding to them. That’s because the most efficient way to respond effectively to dangerous situations is by relying on muscle memory developed over hours and hours of training exercises. The volunteers who turned out to help in Oso had no formal training in search and rescue operations — and no experience with what physical violence can do to the human body.

Each day that I was at the debris field, I would talk to the volunteers and look in their eyes before they were deployed. I learned from experience that this is the best way to tell if people understand the mission and to identify those who might need some direction. In operations such as the Oso slide, which are major and horrific and which last for a significant length of time, we also look for signs (the thousand-yard stare) of critical stress. I saw many volunteers who were fearful of what they were about to do and see. But more importantly I saw courage and determination.

The Oso slide was a devastating, tragic disaster. It literally wiped out families and left an impossible hole in all of our hearts. But more than any other incident I have responded to in my career I will remember Oso as the one that showed me the meaning of true courage, not just from trained first responders, but from whole communities. And for that I am grateful.

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