Volunteer firefighting is a long-lasting and proud tradition in my country – more than 5 percent of the entire population of Slovenia actively contributes to this phenomenon, and I’m no exception. In addition to working as a sound engineer, I’ve been an active service member of a local firefighting company for more than two decades.
Now, before you immediately jump to imagining burning buildings and kitten rescues, the reality is slightly less glamorous. Small companies like ours deal mainly with minor incidents and provide support for larger scale situations. But I’ve had enough training in both fields to find interesting comparisons between the two, especially when it comes to working with live sound, and monitor engineering in particular.
This one is true for most professions, but firefighters are notorious for training sessions and practicing drills. One aspect is getting ourselves in the appropriate mental and physical states to allow us to act almost instinctively, reacting to an automated script, so there’s no wasted effort and reaction time is reduced to the lowest possible amount.
Another aspect of firefighting is being sure to get “up close and personal” with all of the gear, and this is a trademark of great sound engineers as well. Investigating and truly understanding the gear we utilize on a regular basis – for example, comparing microphone sounds, learning the operational principles of consoles, and so on – basically trains our minds and ears to be able to make fast and informed choices when working at events. This includes creating workflow checklists, gear lists, and other documents that help us perform with greater speed and reliability.
I was at a training session to become a fire company commander when an instructor told us to “be ready for the chaos.” Whenever we get on the scene of an incident, there’s a period of time where we’re faced with utter chaos. Entering a complicated situation with no real information while all eyes are on us, waiting for commands – the pressure is on. The advice we were given: first, get all possible relevant information before issuing any orders, then go at it one step at a time while always keep thinking two steps ahead.
Admittedly, the pressure and the stakes are not the same between firefighting and working with live sound. But I get the same feeling of chaos every time I’m doing monitors and a band walks on stage without a sound check. All eyes are on me to provide a workable environment in almost zero time. Combining all of the inputs with all of the monitor lines for performers can be a true definition of chaos that must be untangled as quickly as possible.
The necessary traits of firefighting commanders and sound engineers are similar – they both turn the chaos into a working environment in the shortest amount of time possible. As for issuing commands while doing monitors, I’ve found that engineers that take control of the sound check and guide the artist through it with calmness, clarity and precision are the ones that are most efficient (and most revered) in the industry.
When there’s chaos and uncertainty present in any environment, we tend to look for signs of reassurance and stability. I’ve seen this on literally every call we went on as a part of a firefighting team. In those moments, people are going through a personal crisis, and having figures present that seem to know what they’re doing – with resolve and systematic calmness – instantly makes them feel better.
The same applies to the relationship a monitor engineer has with the artist on stage. When artists perform, they’re vulnerable. The stage can be an intimidating, disarming place where a lot is at stake, and artists rely on their technical teams for psychological support more times than they would care to admit.