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Last year in my column about emotional intelligence I wrote about how a firefighter, especially in a command role, would benefit from the ability to manage emotions in an inherently chaotic situation. The key point was that our objective is to bring rationality to a chaotic situation, to be part of the solution by avoiding becoming part of the problem. This past weekend I saw why it is so important that we achieve that objective.

June 24, 2009 
By Peter Sells

If you didn’t see
it, you will see it. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow but soon, and you will
remember it for the rest of your life. Her name, apparently, was Neda Salehi
Agha-Soltan. She was a philosophy student. She was attending a protest march in
the streets of Tehran. She posed no threat, certainly no immediate deadly
threat, to anyone. Regardless, a police sniper took aim and hit her, center
mass, right in the chest. As the video clip starts you can already see the
blood pooling beneath her, and within seconds all colour and expression leaves
her face as she lays dying in the street. Her eyes roll up and then stare fixed
at the sky. Blood begins to flow freely from her mouth and nose. We wonder at
the brutality of the situation and feel fortunate that things like this don’t
happen in Canada.

I flash back about
three months to March Break, when I took my kids and a couple of their friends
downtown to shop at the Eaton Centre. Walking the few blocks from where I
parked we found ourselves in the middle of 40,000 Tamil-Canadian protestors.
The young and old were there. Some families we passed seemed to have four
generations in attendance. They were very well organized. It seemed that the
youth and young adults were marshalling the group using walkie-talkies, loud
hailers and cell phones. There was absolutely no sense of danger in the air.
The kids peppered me with questions – “Who are the Tamil Tigers?”, “What is
Tamil Elaam?”. If their objective was to raise awareness of their issues and
concerns, they certainly achieved it in our little Canadian microcosm. And
throughout, there were the police, visible and in large numbers. Not crouching
on rooftops and picking off young women.

In early May, as
the situation in their homeland was going very poorly, I watched on TV on a
Sunday afternoon as the protesters moved en masse up an on-ramp onto the
Gardiner expressway and physically shut down traffic in and out of Toronto
until after midnight. Here is where emotional intelligence comes in. Did the
protesters have the right to close the highway? By doing so, did they pose a
risk to the public and to themselves? The answers to those questions are
obvious. The solution to the situation was not. I am absolutely in awe of the
way this was handled by the police. Complete professionalism was demonstrated
as they focused on a timely resolution with minimal use of force. Chief Bill
Blair was quoted in the National Post
saying: “Notwithstanding the fact they have created a very dangerous situation,
we don’t want to make it more dangerous by an escalation of force. We’re going
to try to find every peaceful way to get them off of there.”

And that’s exactly
what they did. No shots fired; nobody killed. The contrast between the police
responses in Toronto and in Tehran is absolute. But this is a blog about the
fire service, and as usual I will end it with a few provocative questions. Do
we have the capacity for the same level of emotionally intelligent response as
was demonstrated by Toronto Police? Whose job demands a more complex set of
decision-making skills? We have historically tied our salary structures to
those of our local police services. Is that fair?


I’m sure you have
an opinion on this, so go ahead. At least tell me if you picked up on the
classic movie quote.



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