Mindfulness and Putting out a House Fire
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.
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.
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!”
You 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.
Research 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.