If you spend time around wildland firefighters, you’ll notice the abbreviation “LCES” quite often. Some people have it on their helmets. It can be a hashtag (#LCES) in social media. You might hear crews calling “LCES!” to one another as they head out to the fireline.

LCES stands for Lookouts, Communications, Escape routes and Safety Zones. Before firefighters engage the fire, they are always supposed to establish LCES – it is the starting point for fireline safety. It can also be a starting point for maintaining your emotional safety.

Lookouts

Lookouts at a fire are in a position where they always can see what the fire and the crew are doing. They should always know where everyone is – if crew members are moving out of view, they let them know. They monitor the weather and maintain communications between the crew and the rest of the world. They stick to their position until the hazards are no longer present.

Who are your emotional lookouts? Are you “visible” to your co-workers and family enough that they’ll be able to notice when you have had a rough time or you’re heading for trouble? Emotional transparency can be difficult in public safety, where there will always be some stigma about appearing “weak.” However, it’s life and death – the same macho attitude that has killed firefighters – by leading them to take on more than they can handle – can also kill you emotionally and spiritually. Do you have lookouts that are independent of your family and job – a support group, religious study or other small group that you can trust? Sometimes strangers are the easiest people to trust.

Are you being a lookout for people around you? Are you paying attention to your co-workers, family and friends, watching for signs that they are struggling or getting into trouble? Are you willing to gently confront and offer to support them when you can see possible danger signs? Look out for people who are drinking, eating, spending or working too much. Watch out for changes such as increasing isolation, depression, anger, anxiety, unfocused, not sleeping enough, having affairs.

Communications

Lookouts are useless without communications. In firefighting, lookouts have to maintain communications with their crew and the outside world. Radios are the most frequent means, but non-verbals are also important. Daily communication starts with briefings – what’s the current situation, other information that’s necessary to going through the day safely. Communications failures have led to firefighter deaths, including the 19 who died in the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona in 2013. Only their lookout survived.

Do you have regular and thorough communication about your current emotional situation with the key people in your life? Even if you and your family are lookouts for each other, that won’t do any good unless you communicate regularly and effectively. Effective communication, which is an essential part of any public safety career, has to be a two-way process – clear messages from senders with confirmation and clarification from receivers. The same applies to personal communications – speak and listen well. Do you raise your defenses when your lookouts give you negative feedback? Do you schedule time to talk with family, friends and other sources of support – a spiritual director, small group, counselor or therapist – as needed? Are you willing to give others direct feedback about themselves even though they might perceive it as rude? That’s the kind of communication it takes to stay alive on the fireline. You’ll find that even though it is uncomfortable in daily life, a friend who is fearlessly honest about communicating your blind spots is a friend to hang onto. Psychologists repeatedly report studies demonstrating that our resilience correlates to our social support more than any other factor.

Escape routes

Escape routes are the paths that firefighters will take to leave an area quickly and reach a safety zone. Everyone needs to know at least two escape routes; those routes have to be cleared of barriers.

When we face critical incidents, we need emotional escape routes when the work is done. Does your agency have protocols so that your critical incident “lookouts” – line supervisors – know when to automatically trigger a defusing or other intervention? Is anyone empowered to call for one if they are having a difficult reaction or they are worried about others? Do you have trusted people you can call or meet with to talk about a rough day – peer support team, family, counselor, therapist, sponsor, pastor, rabbi. Are you good at saying “No” to overtime and other extra tasks when you know you need down time?

Safety Zones

In firefighting, a safety zone is a place where you can retreat and not be injured if the fire burns through. It isn’t just a spot where you might survive using all of your safety gear; it is a place where you can be confident that you won’t even need any of that equipment.

Where are your safety zones? Sometimes, the signal that you’re in a safety zone is that it is where you discover that you’re carrying more emotional baggage than you realized. For me, that is often Sunday morning at church during a particularly powerful song. I find that my throat tightens up and it’s hard to get the words out as my mind drifts back to something that happened earlier in the week. If the feelings are strong enough, I’ll seek out our pastor or a friend after the services.

Any 12-step meeting or other support group had better be a safety zone – a place where you can speak freely and honestly – or it’s not doing its job. The same is true, naturally, of critical incident stress defusing, debriefings and individual support. Above all, these interventions need to be safe, which means confidential, supportive rather than critical and low pressure. If the facilitators of these interventions do nothing more than create a safety zone, that’s a win.

Whose Job is LCES?

Just as we are each the primary person responsible for our physical safety at work, we are responsible for our emotional safety – our own lookouts, communications, escape routes and safety zones. A great peer support team facilitates and encourages these, while supplementing them by creating and maintaining agency-wide lookouts and communications. Escape routes and safety zones – mutual aid, support meetings, clinicians and other shared resources – also need to exist at a higher level, so that there is a strong continuum of care available to all.

LCES for everybody!