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Sometimes the best thing you can do is ask for help before you really, really need it.

Yesterday I was walking a friend's dogs past a Harvard-owned building in Cambridge when I noticed smoke coming off of the mulch in the landscaping that surrounded the building.

A moment later, an employee came out of the building with a small container of water which she poured on some of the mulch. Had she called the Cambridge Fire Department, I asked, watching the smoke rise from hidden hot spots beneath the mounds of bark. "No," she answered, "I didn't want to be a problem for anyone so I've called Harvard Facilities and they're coming over."

While the employee's desire to create a minimal amount of fuss was understandable, it was also an invitation to disaster. Just last May, hardly a year ago, a mulch fire in Arlington, Mass, the next town over from Cambridge, killed one man and left others homeless when it jumped to the building and became a four alarm blaze.

I explained that I was a City Councilor in Cambridge, that we had a fire department specifically for these occurrences and not only were they capable of handling this incipient fire, it'd be the most fun they would likely have all day. That's what firefighters, like other first responders, live for, putting their skills to work in a real incident.

I took the dogs home and before I was back down the stairs, CFD, arriving well before Harvard Facilities, was on site liberally applying water from a nearby hydrant to what appeared to be a pretty extensive subterranean burn. What could have gone from an amusing anecdote to a deadly disaster had been averted because one woman had realized the time had come to ask for help.

I wasn't surprised at the woman's reluctance to ask for help. It can be hard to ask other people for assistance. I approve CFD's budget and even I thought twice before sheepishly calling them one winter about a propane leak. Of course, a firetruck was at my home in minutes and the firefighters assured me I'd done the right thing, but I still felt foolish. I should have been able to handle it myself.

Even I, with years of emergency response work and training behind me, need to better understand that when it comes to any type of resiliency, "while being resourceful is an important part of resilience, it is also essential to know when to ask for help."

Government agencies recognize the need to ask for help when disasters strike, both for themselves through formal programs within the government and for regular citizens who have been impacted. It is crucial that the rest of us realize that we should really ask for help when we need it, whether it is something as mundane as having a friend walk your dogs or as challenging as working with neighbors during a disaster. That's not to say everyone can provide any sort of assistance in all circumstances and trust your instincts when it comes to figuring out who to ask for help carrying your groceries home, but when it comes to fighting a fire, asking the local fire department for help is always a good bet.

So, the next time you think you might need some help, ask for it. If you wait too long, it may be too late.

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