Thread: Heat of the Moment
07-04-2005, 09:17 AM #1
- Join Date
- Oct 2002
Heat of the Moment
This was sent to me and I thought if you haven't read it , it was worth a read.....
Heat of the Moment
A firefighter gives 10 life-lessons learned on the front lines by Michael Perry
For 10 years now, it's been my privilege to serve in the volunteer fire department in New Auburn, Wisconsin. I choose the word "privilege" specifically because I'm allowed to contribute to the community while indulging my appetite for big trucks, adrenaline, exercise and those cool helmets. Plus, we get to help run the beer-and-bratwurst stand at Jamboree Days.
Along the way, I've learned that it takes a ton of training to prepare a squad of firefighters to handle emergencies ranging from a house fire to a fat lady stuck on the toilet. I've learned that it takes dedication to pry yourself from a warm bed at 3 a.m. to do the one-legged pants dance before diving headlong into a night of nose-hair-snapping cold. I've learned that it takes bravery to knee-walk into a burning house in search of a neighbor.
But I've also learned that training, dedication and bravery are trumped by your ability to keep a clear head. This particular breakthrough occurred at 4 a.m., as I watched my fellow firefighters enter a burning building without me because, trained, dedicated, and brave as I might have been, I forgot to bring my helmet.
What follow are 10 more lessons that stuck with me long after the smoke cleared.
Lesson 1: Caution doesn't equal cowardice.
I cherish how firefighting can blast through pretense like a blowtorch through butter. The difference between bravery and bravado can be judged by various measures, one of them being 525F, the temperature at which your face shield melts and drips to the floor, followed milliseconds later by your face.
There are also less fatal gauges. On one occasion, my partner and I were cautiously mopping up the tail end of a fire on the second floor of a house when a firefighter from another department got frustrated with our refusal to move forward. We told him we feared the floor had been weakened by the fire. Hero Boy grabbed an ax, charged past us, and fell straight through, saved only by the fact that he was straddling a stringer. He took a real good shot to the nuts, which was nice. It was satisfying to watch him teeter.
My theory is, if a guy has a No Fear sticker on his helmet, he's welcome to the front of the hose—the only danger being he may trample you on the way out when everything goes south and he recalibrates his philosophical stance.
Lesson 2: You can't rescue someone from really bad news.
We are standing in the woods beside a dead man. It's a frosty autumn night, and our breath hangs in the headlight beams before evaporating. The man, who was in his 40s, went missing two days ago. Following directions given by the family, we've come searching for him and found his body crushed beneath a tree, the chain saw he used to fell it nearby. Now, through the forest, from out by the road, we hear a woman scream. The family has arrived, hoping for good news. "I just told them he was gone," my chief says later. A burly man, he is visibly shaken. "I didn't know what else to do."
I know how he feels. I remember kneeling at the feet of a woman dead in her chair, and looking up at her teenage daughter, who still had a little hope in her eyes, and saying, "I'm sorry." I remember standing in the kitchen of a lifelong friend, hugging her while my partners did compressions on her husband, and telling her we were going to do everything we could, but that it didn't look good.
I have never been able to tell anyone "Everything will be all right." If things look bad, I say so. You look the person straight in the eye, maybe you put your hand on her shoulder and lower your voice, but beyond that, there's no such thing as softening the blow. We've all had someone get angry with us at that moment, but we've never had anyone hunt us down later to say we should have sugarcoated the truth. We have, on the other hand, had people thank us for giving them bad news without decoration or delay.
Lesson 3: Exit strategies are essential.
The pumper operator and I were watching from across the street as the chief and a dozen firefighters clustered near the doorway of a burning warehouse, preparing to attack. Suddenly, a vicious whistling sound erupted from within the building, the volume and pitch spiraling louder and louder by the second. The way everybody came peeling out of there, it was like someone had kicked an anthill. I jumped behind a tree. Eventually, the noise whistled down to nothing (it turned out to be air escaping from a pressurized container), but I still chuckle when I think of how unabashedly we bailed.
Firefighters are trained to attack but prepared to retreat. We keep a hand or a knee in constant contact with the hose while we're inside a structure. Like Tom Sawyer's string strung through a cavern, it's your way out should things go bad. When it comes to fighting fire, buying real estate, or salvaging a relationship, positive thinking has its place; but in any of these endeavors, there are advantages to assuming the worst and preplanning your escape.
Lesson 4: Inner peace is in the inferno.
I once logged a month-long stretch working away from home, driving or flying from city to city, hustling to several appointments per day, and staying in a different hotel every night.
I was sleep-deprived, disoriented, over-caffeinated and constantly running late. The night after I returned home, our department fought a house fire. We hit the ground running and made our initial attack, and as I stood there surrounded by roaring flames, with the hose nozzle bucking in my hands, my first clear thought was, I haven't been this relaxed in weeks!
Another time, I found myself feeling oddly grateful to a drunk who drove head-on into a semi, because it took us 20 minutes to cut him free—20 minutes in which I was able to forget my involvement in a child-custody battle that had my guts feeling like they were full of crushed glass and vinegar.
Road rage, impossible bosses, cranky lovers—firefighting blows them all away. It helps that you're swaddled head to toe in heavy gear and looking out from behind a mask that is quite literally its own environment, shielding you from killer flames and delivering fresh air in the midst of the most toxic smoke. The effect—even at the center of chaos—is akin to being in a portable isolation tank, and the huff-chuff of the respirator is a perfect mantra. Of course, it's worth mentioning that the Zen of firefighting is also driven by the fundamental nature of the job. You put water on fire. You lift things, you pull things, you grunt, you hustle. You slam the door on all the maddening chippy bits of everyday life and let your mind and body get down to sweaty basics. You can accomplish pretty much the same thing with an iPod and a stack of free weights.
Lesson 5: Firefighters make women hot.
Calendar sales prove it: Chicks dig firefighters. Trouble is, most of those calendar firefighters have abs. That is to say, chicks dig abs—whether they're on a firefighter or the pool boy. The abs of your average volunteer firefighter tend more toward those of our old chief, who once returned from a fire in deep winter to discover that his prodigious belly had been stenciled with frostbite where his coat had gapped. Still, there is some truth to the whole man-in-a-uniform theory. I can tell you that there are worse gigs than directing beach traffic around an accident scene while accessorized in a helmet and red suspenders. Even on the scruffiest among us, the look seems to elicit approval from swim-suited girls in Jeeps.
I would be remiss, however, if I didn't point out that the woman-in-a-uniform effect is far more potent. When a semi loaded with bananas rolled over outside of town a few years back, the investigating officer was a blonde who arrived with her uniform pants tucked in her lace-up boots. The male firefighters schooled in her wake like pie-eyed carp. She dropped her pencil, and it was like feeding time at Sea World. Go so far as to put a woman in SWAT fatigues and you'll turn a veteran smoke-eater into a complete spaniel. Give her a gun and he'll flop over and beg for a belly scratch.
Lesson 6: The survivors are still the fittest.
Last year, 104 U.S. firefighters died in the line of duty. There is no sacrifice so terrifying or noble as giving your life in an attempt to pull someone from an inferno, and a little part of me ponders this every time I hear the sirens. But life is not the movies, and when I'm rassling a hose up a smoky stairwell, I know I'm in the greatest danger when I become frantically short of breath and my heart pummels my sternum like a load of unbalanced wash on the spin cycle. See, nearly half of those 104 firefighters died because their hearts gave out.
Heart attack is the number-one killer of on-duty firefighters and has been for years (roughly 44 percent, in numbers tracking back to 1984). After heart attack, our most likely demise (20 percent to 25 percent) is in a motor-vehicle accident while we're responding to or returning from an emergency. The roaring fire or collapsing high-rise is our mortal foe, but our deadliest enemies are far more mundane. In firefighting, as in life, spectacle obscures reality. Well-trained professionals with top-notch equipment and brave souls save lives—but so do regular workouts and a seatbelt.
Lesson 7: Bravery blows hot and cold.
I had just finished backing my tanker up to the pumper when a house fire we were battling exploded in a terrifying flurry of booms, bangs, zips and zings. In an instant, everybody on the lines was spinning away from the structure and sprinting for cover. The flames had eaten into an ammo cache. You could hear things flying through the air. Suddenly, Bob, one of the retreating firefighters, broke stride and pitched face-forward into the grass. I turned my head, tipped my helmet toward the firing line, and ran straight toward him. I remember pulling and tugging at him, sure he was shot and bleeding, and then he struggled to his feet and we lumbered back behind the pumper. Turns out he had simply tripped, but it was nice to look at myself in the mirror the next morning knowing I had, in that instant, gone toward the bad stuff to help a friend.
I also know what it is to look in the mirror and not be so sure of the guy looking back.
I was third man in on an interior attack two winters ago when the lead man fell headfirst into a basement full of flames. I could hear Matt, number two on the hose, scream, "RIC IS IN THE BASEMENT!" I was instantly, horribly, crazily terrified. I was on all fours, but there was so much smoke I couldn't see the floor. I remember thinking, Two of us will never get him out, and then I went full-speed backward, scuttling like a panicky crab. Seeing a faint rectangle of light, I jumped up and staggered out the door, smack into the face of the chief. "RIC IS IN THE BASEMENT!" I hollered. "WE NEED MORE HELP! AND A LADDER!" Then I wheeled and dove back into the building—and crashed into Matt, who was running out of the house with Ric right behind him. When Ric fell, Matt grabbed hold of his legs and was able to wrestle him back to safety. I felt ashamed and joyous all at once.
Later, when the three of us talked it over, I tried to explain: Believing the stairs had collapsed and Ric was deep in the basement, I made the split-second decision to bail for more equipment and help. Matt and Ric agreed, but I wondered if I detected reservation in their voices. I know I detected it in mine.
Lesson 8: Neatness saves lives.
At the fire hall, my gear is tucked neatly in my locker, ready to go. My gloves and fireproof hood are rolled and clipped to my turnout jacket. My helmet is on its hook. My red-suspendered bunkers are rolled around the ankles of my boots so all I have to do is jump in, yank up my pants, thumb the suspenders over my shoulders, and hit the road.
When we finish with a call, we tear apart the trucks, clean and stow the gear, replace anything that's missing, hang the wet hoses up to dry, and finish with a run-through of several checklists so everything is ready for the next emergency. In firefighting, preparation and attention to detail are critical, and you cannot put them off for even one hour. But it also makes your life a lot easier, prevents you from losing stuff, and, when you take that last look around the hall before you turn off the lights, gives you a nice, fuzzy "all is well" feeling. My wife longs for the day I bring these housekeeping habits home from the fire hall.
Lesson 9: If you screw up, don't cover it up.
We reserve an entire segment of our annual banquet for bonehead awards. Two years ago, the chief completely missed the truck bay and backed the rapid-attack truck smack into the wall. He toyed with the idea of keeping the whole thing on the down low, until someone saw the bumper-wide crease in the steel siding. At the banquet, our beefiest firefighter dressed in drag and sang him the "Back It Up Blues."
This year, I got an award for leaving an accident scene and driving halfway home before I realized I was at the wheel of another firefighter's car. I got busted slinking back through the roadblock.
Once a month, we review our calls and speak frankly about what we could have done better. You have to be willing to set aside your ego and not worry about tromping on others'. It doesn't always work—we're humans with pride, false and otherwise—but the bonehead awards help. For all their goof-off, back-slapping fun, they foster a spirit of openness in which it's okay to admit screwups. Which is why when I roared off on a call without unplugging the ambulance battery charger, I put a note up on the whiteboard upon my return, taking credit for the frayed wires I had left trailing from the wall.
Lesson 10: It's all about the parade.
When it comes to firefighting, the whole "bold and brave" thing is easily overblown. Statistically speaking, pizza delivery is a more hazardous occupation. Logging is the most dangerous profession of all, meaning every time my brother trades his chain saw for a fire ax, he actually improves his life expectancy.
The word "hero" gets tossed around a lot. The truth is, a hero is only recognized if something goes terribly wrong or fantastically right. Crawling into a burning mobile home to rescue someone who turns out to be up north plugging slots at the casino is no less heroic than crawling in and saving a real, live baby—it's just that the live-baby scenario makes the news.
That said, the smarmy nature of false modesty compels me to say that, yeah, it does feel good to put the suit on and get in there. It does feel good to come out of a blackened building all smoked up and alive, alive, alive. And I love that day every July when we wash up the trucks, stock the cabs with mix-and-match candy bags, put on our blue-and-red department caps, and join the Jamboree Days parade. The day is almost always hot and sunny. We drive slowly through our little town, waving at our neighbors and slinging Zagnuts to the kiddies. For a brief, sweet 20 minutes or so, the trucks are shiny, the people are happy, the flag waves cleanly, and Norman Rockwell's America lives without irony.
Michael Perry, a volunteer firefighter in New Auburn, Wis., is the author of Population: 485 – Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time(HarperCollins). Available in bookstores or online at www.population485.com or www.sneezingcow.com.
07-04-2005, 06:23 PM #2
- Join Date
- Nov 2004
Thank you, thank you, thank you!!! For paving the way, learning lessons to pass on, and the ability to express those things we have all felt but could not communicate effectively--Thank you!
07-05-2005, 10:06 AM #3
Thank you! What a great read and a good way to get the week off to a great start. I especially like the whole "Zen of Firefighting" section, it's so true how everything pales when you are in certain situations.
~JeffPiscataway Fire Dist #2
07-05-2005, 11:49 AM #4
Ah yes, this was an article in the June '05 issue of Men's Health. Definately recommend picking a copy up if you can find one.*Old FH Forum SN: WFDjr1*
07-05-2005, 12:47 PM #5
- Join Date
- Jan 2004
Michael Perry has a book out called "Population:485 Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time" Pretty interesting read about being a firefighter in a small town.
07-05-2005, 05:08 PM #6
Thanks for posting; that was a good read, indeed!IACOJ
If you are willing to teach;
I am willing to learn.
07-05-2005, 08:49 PM #7
- Join Date
- Jun 2005
- Syracuse, NY, USA
07-05-2005, 11:42 PM #8
"And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap it if we do not lose heart."
07-27-2005, 12:04 AM #9
- Join Date
- Aug 2002
- Wren, MS Until the forum gremlins pay a visit!
Outstanding! Thanks for the good read.Chief
Wren Volunteer Fire Department
In Memory of:
FireFighter/Pilot James Archer
"Rest in peace James, you now have the ultimate set of wings on you."
07-27-2005, 02:04 AM #10
- Join Date
- Nov 2003
That is an excellent article. Michael Perry is a great author. I have heard him read from his book "Population 485" a few times. I definately encourage all of you to pick up a copy of it. It is a great read, and it gives a great insight to the way things are in northern Wisconsin, which is where I was born.-Bozz
Air Force Medic
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