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Mindfulness and Putting out a House Fire

July 25, 2016

Personal Story by Cpt. Michael Morse PFD

Distraction wastes our energy. And our air

You are in deep, a lot deeper than get-in-get-out, the scenario you always hope for as you pull up to the dwelling, and even as you haul hose, set up in neat flakes that give you speed and predictability, you are picturing something obvious, easy, right there.
But you’re already past that point. There’s 150 feet of flaked attack line behind you and the fire is further back still, somewhere beyond the pitch black of heated smoke surrounding you. It’s you and the heat, and you are blind. A scan in your head that’s always updating a map of you in relation to back-up, puts you –  “on the pipe” to put out the fire – in the thick of things with a primary search team victim-hunting in sector 2 and a ladder company on the roof looking for a way to open it up, let out the smoke and gases. But the thick press of heat against your body tells you they haven’t yet.

You’re aware there may be people trapped somewhere, and the search teams are committed, deep like you, where anything could happen – backdrafts, crashes – but right here, now, it’s just you, the black, and the ominous heat murmuring through your blindness that somewhere hidden to you in this moment, fire is raging.
You stretch some more line, and the quiet descends, and you relax, and your breathing slows, without you even realizing you are doing so. In that moment the clack of the positive pressure valve as it opens and fills your mask with air is not only your life line, but your direct line to the present, and you exhale, and then the clack again, and the exhale.

That pause lets you gather your wits, your courage, and the last bit of energy you have, and you get the obstacles out of your way, chair legs, tables, feeling, not seeing until the pitch blackness gives way to sight, dim, but defining, and you move toward vision.

Soon sight is an eerie, smoky glow. You are getting closer. The more you can see, the closer you know you are to meeting the living core of all this heat.

Breathing in, letting out…clack…clack; your air must be running low, you think, becoming distracted. You expect the 5-minute alert to go off at any second. But you snap back. You are aware of distraction, as you must be, even aware of your thoughts, letting them in, remaining aware of them. But you can’t be preoccupied with them. You don’t have the luxury of getting lost in thought or experience or even in the endpoint of making your way through the building. Nor can you chase the thoughts away because there are so many things to do, and any given thought could be lifesaving at the right moment. So you let the thought in, and keep it close, and you inch forward…clack…clack…clack. This balancing act is the firefighter’s mindfulness practice.
Finally, a glow appears, and you can see, and you know what’s around that corner. You know that when you see the source of this glow in its bright, hot glory, snaking up a wall or across the backs of melting furniture, or raging out randomly in ravenous white tongues to consume, it can be hypnotic. You’ve seen men freeze in their awe of it; you have even been that man frozen, because going from blind, deathly stillness into the presence of fire stuns you with clarity of vision. It’s an abrupt face-to-face encounter with hot, breathing, raging power. And yet that instant that you take to revere it, mesmerized, could be the difference between beating it and not getting out alive.

So just as you know this fiery majesty is about to come into view, and possibly seize your visual senses, you key the mic and say through the place in the mask where sound escapes, “charge my line!”

FirefightersYou note the reassuring…clack…clack…clack, your life’s breath, continues and you crawl a little further, and the glow becomes alive, and it’s crawling up the wall…clack…clack…clack…clack and over your head…clack…clack…clack…just as the empty line in your hands comes to life, clack…clack, and you point your Task Force Tip at the fire…clack… as you set the nozzle to a powerful straight stream…clack…and open it, clack…clack, and blackness dampens, then kills the light as fire turns to smoke…clack…clack…clack…and you keep hitting the flames, keep breathing, and the flames shrink back to the nothingness they are, and disappear…clack…clack…clack…and a small rectangle appears in the darkness, and you know that it …clack…clack is the outline of a window, and you have made it to the very rear wall of the house…clack…clack…clack…and the ladder crew “got the roof”…clack, and the smoke begins to clear, a little…clack…clack…clack…and you move toward the window…clack…clack knowing you are just about out of air…clack…clack…clack… and the smoke continues to clear, and the window is vented, and the fire is out…

After a moment or two, when you see clear air where gritty smoke had been, you take off the mask, and breathe. The sound of the mask bringing you air is gone, but you hear it echoing in your head for hours, and you hold on to that sound subconsciously, because that sound, and the air that accompanied it held you together and allowed you to go in,  do your job, and get out alive.

Mindfulness during firefighting operations is something that happens whether we are aware of it or not. Our lives depend on being focused and performing under emergency conditions, on letting every distraction that comes our way into our minds without allowing it to take over. Being conscious of the risks, but not stymied by them, keeps us alive. These are all exercises in mindfulness. Being aware of every input presented to us, we observe and let it settle. I did it unwittingly every time I depended on air from the Scott pack to keep me alive. I tuned in to that tiny, steady sound.

A mindful state frees up our training and experience to organize the chaos of a fire into workable intelligence and informed action.

treatment optionsResearch is showing that mindfulness can also be a useful practice in addiction recovery. This type of training, learning to focus our attention so that we can become aware of, and then let go of, unhealthy inner thoughts, can improve our frame of mind in recovery. Most of us are trapped in the habit of mental negativity. In a way, we face a life-and-death situation every time we let negative thought habits, like regrets about the past or worries about the future, crush our self-confidence or self-esteem and trigger our cravings. We are like firefighters who get mesmerized by the flame.

Making choices that reinforce recovery means navigating distraction and action. As a firefighter, that clack…clack, reminding me of my lifeline, was a natural cue to practice mindfulness. In fires, I’ve learned an important formula: distraction wastes our energy; awareness and focus can restore it. I spend a lot of time battling my addictions. I’ve lost some battles, and the war continues to rage, but I’m enjoying the journey of self-discovery now more than ever.

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