To the untrained eye, it looks like an emergency responder’s first move is always a step toward the situation that has people running the other way.
In the movies, police never have time for backup, and firefighters jump through flames on a solo run against all odds.
But, in real life—in my life—oftentimes the first move in a stressful situation is a step back. You need to gather as much information as possible, assess the risk and, more importantly, make sure you’re not complicating an already dicey problem with your approach.
Until recently, I was a construction coordinator at the Mont Belvieu Plastics Plant near Houston, which entailed ensuring the start-up of new equipment for the company’s North American Growth Project. Once it’s finished, I will help run the largest plant in the ExxonMobil polyethylene (that’s plastics, for those unfamiliar with the term) universe. It’ll also be the second-largest polyethylene plant in the world, so there are plenty of moving parts to keep an eye on. With nearly 600 workers, we make sure nothing moves without our knowing why.
I’m currently transitioning to become console operator, but in addition to those duties, I’m also a volunteer member of our Emergency Response Team’s fire-and-rescue operation. My training has also included high-angle rope work and confined-space rescues.
Thankfully, I’m not called on to apply those skills very often, but if need be, I’m ready to scale, repel and crawl to those in need. Beyond the know-how to tie the proper knot or wrap the correct bandage, what’s most needed is the ability to handle stress.
I learned about handling stress during four years of service in the U.S. Marine Corps. There, you understand that in the midst of a crisis, your priority is to avoid tunnel vision, to think about the whole picture and to assess what is affecting that one thing you’re trying to solve. You try to slow down what’s moving quickly and simplify what you can.
So, how do I do that? Well, I start by asking, Is what I’m doing making things better, worse or keeping things the same? If the answer is that I’m making things worse, why and what, if anything, needs to be changed?
In the Marine Corps, I committed myself to duty and service to my country. I bring a similar mindset to the company as a volunteer first responder. It’s something I enjoy, the adrenaline and the camaraderie with the folks on the emergency response teams.
Though it seems like my time is spent training to prepare for a worst-case scenario, I do have a day job. Once my training is complete, my work as a console operator will entail running the controls that monitor chemical feeds, make polyethylene and ensure product quality—almost every aspect of making sure the Mont Belvieu Plastics Plant runs safely.
Yes, that too can be a stressful job. There are days when you come off the console and are more tired than if you’d spent 12 hours climbing up and down steps.
No matter whether I’m at the helm of a sophisticated manufacturing facility or repelling in a harness from it, I thrive in a world of a daily stress and high-stakes challenges.
Do I plan to slow down? No. I’m 43, but in my mind I’m only 23.