I can’t Wear my &%$! MASK!

Writing is cathartic for me. It has been for a long time. However, up until I started blogging my writing was limited to posting to various Facebook groups to people who hardly knew me or didn’t know me at all. I wrote a couple of articles posted on the internet as well but, if anyone even looked to see who had authored them, I was just a name with a bio similar to any of a thousand other folks out there.

But writing a blog is baring your soul. Most of your subscribers, at least at the beginning, know exactly who you are and you have a relationship with them. When you confess the kind of thing I’ll confess here the only consolation is that you’re typing by yourself and not standing face to face, scared to death you’re going to lose the respect of the people you consider your brothers and sisters.

The struggles I had over the last couple of years of my career were some I thought I was impervious to.

From the time I was 15 years old and an Explorer Scout until I had 24 months to retire SCBA had always been what I loved to train on the most. And, while I was never a Smokediver, I completed the SCBA Specialist Course at the Alabama Fire College when I was in my early 20’s. They introduced me to consumption drills. I went home with first degree burns on my neck and back. I passed out one day and was told to get a new…steel…air bottle and redo the evolution. I thought about quitting every day. That was close enough to smoke diving for me!

Ric Jorge has become more than a fellow retired firefighter. He has become a mentor and true brother, as he is to so many. I was fortunate to get some hang time with him following this year’s Metro Atlanta Firefighters Conference and he said something about firefighter stress and the stress response. I mentioned it in the previous piece on the blog. I’ll probably mention it after this as well.

“You may not hear the thunder but you’re gonna feel the lightning”

I guess I heard a few rumbles of thunder the last few years of my career but they didn’t register. I’d participate in consumptions drills along with the recruits when I was the assistant recruit school coordinator in training and, for the first time, I could feel a few little panicky episodes. Very slight, barely audible whispers in my subconscious telling me I couldn’t breathe with the mask on. One deep breath and my conscious voice telling them to sit down and shut up was sufficient.

The first time the lightning really hit me was during a gear WOD at Station #7, still the best house in Cobb. I gave in and pulled my facepiece off behind a table in the bay where I thought I was hidden. Don’t know if I was or not. I chalked it up the being too aggressive with my tire flipping and told myself it was an anomaly that would never happen again. And it didn’t…. for several years.

I had shoulder surgery in the fall of 2015. Early in the spring of 2016 I was released to light duty and assigned to help Dale Hutson, the fitness coordinator, in the training division. In anticipation of returning to the field, I went back to what I’d done for years; high intensity circuits everyday and two or three days a week, in my gear and on air. I had absolutely no problems.

After physical therapy and rehabilitation, I was cleared to return to the field in June of 2016. I had about 2 years left and I figured it was time to get closer to home so I transferred to Station #25. One Sunday morning our battalion chief called and sent us to Station #26 where they had a mask confidence course set up. I was all over it. I felt zero apprehension about completing it.

That is, until I was outside, charged 1 ¾” running under the bay door that was about 2 feet off the ground. Even then I wasn’t apprehensive. When one of 26’s firefighters came up. “Hey LT. I’m going to put some cellophane over your facepiece. “No problem” I thought, but when he did…. I lost it. I literally had an argument between the spheres of my brain with one side saying “There is no way in Hell I’m doing this” and the other side pleading “You’ve got to! You’ve done these 1000 times! What is wrong with you?”

After a few minutes of obvious hesitancy, for some reason, I thought I could do it if I closed my eyes. Isn’t that ironic? But it worked. It wasn’t pretty but I did it.

Now it wasn’t peals of thunder I was hearing. The lightning had just hit me square in the noggin yet I still thought it was an anomaly that would never happen again. But, two weeks later, at the tower, when I couldn’t even put it on for a downed firefighter drill, I had to admit that I had a problem which had to be addressed if I was going to remain in the field for two more years.

When the lightning did hit…it really lit me up!
Credit – mr. football

I had a concept for a class that I had thought up several years before. I wanted to learn how to apply techniques that pro-athletes, special operations guys, and law enforcement employ to stay calm. How does a quarterback throw a touchdown pass in the final seconds to win? How does a SEAL keep his head in a firefight? How does a police officer think clearly when fighting a resistant subject? I wanted to be able to learn techniques for keeping your head when you just fell into an involved basement at 3 in the morning or when you realize you’re hopelessly lost in a commercial building and your vibra-alert activates.

But higher performance wasn’t enough to make me follow through. It took a glass of ice-cold humiliation to motivate me to the end.

So, upon returning from the downed firefighter drill, with my tail between my legs, I started reading back over my previous notes and messaged Ric via Facebook. The next morning, after shift, he talked to me for over an hour on the phone and didn’t even know me.

After some study and, since I already had a rough concept for a class, I offered to bring training in the techniques to the department if I could attend some classes.

I signed up for a local mindfulness class. My department didn’t have money available for the course so the instructor, Lisa Wellstead, gave me her public safety rate and my battalion chief allowed me to take off when the classes hit on shift as log as staffing was good. For those not familiar with mindfulness. It helps you increase your ability to focus. That’s the short explanation.

Shortly after, Ric was going to be speaking about these techniques at Firehouse World in Nashville. Again, our department didn’t have any money available for the conference so, I paid my own way, up at 0400, drive to Nashville, take the class and come home same day.

And now it was time to apply what I was learning. The Orlando Fire Conference had a firefighter survival class so I requested to attend. Still no money but I was given leave so I paid my way again. It was a good excuse to pull the boat and fish a couple of days anyway. I was nervous as a cat but, using my techniques helped as they crammed us into boxes of wire, forced us through holes and gave us a RIT drill in smoke that kicked even the young guy’s butts.

In Orlando, like at many classes, after the instructor explained what we’d be doing they opened it up for comments and questions. Sure, I would have loved all of those young pukes to believe I was some grizzled smoke eater that didn’t have a single weakness. But I also wanted everyone to know what I was going through and why I was there. And opening up about where I’d been and where I wanted to go was another epiphany on this journey.

Being open about your struggles doesn’t bring condemnation. It brings empathy and it brings guys to your side who encourage you and want to see you succeed. It also brings openness on their part. You’d be surprised at how many firefighters share the same struggles you do.

Even if you haven’t “felt the lightning”. Yet. I encourage you to take a class on tactical resilience or, if I have the opportunity to give it again, my Calm, Cool, and Collected in Chaos Class. These are skills that you’ll need at some point in your career. I see 3 and possibly 4 applications.

First, for the recruit or the instructor of recruit(s) that demonstrate claustrophobic traits and/or rip off their facepieces in smoke or darkness. When I was a training officer, we had no way to help these people other than having them wear their mask more. That works with some, but with others its like throwing a person who can’t swim into the deep end. It only makes it worse. These are practical skills that will enable them to overcome and succeed.

Second, for the firefighter in his/her prime, the rock star. If they ever find themselves in a survival situation, these skills and the baseline mental attitudes that can be learned over time; positive self-talk, mental focus, visualization may very well be the difference between living to fight another day and being Firefighter #1 on a NIOSH Report next year.

Third, you’re going to get older and when you do you won’t be able to perform like you could when you were younger. After speaking with some professionals, I realized that my panic wasn’t coming from the mask. It was coming from a fear of looking bad in front of my crew and my peers. Those who know me, know that I have two speeds but my top end speed at age 53 isn’t what it was at 33 or even 43. However, my brain demanded from my body what it couldn’t give anymore and it freaked me out.

And a fourth application for those aspiring to become Smokedivers or attend some other extreme training sessions. I can promise you that these skills will assist you during your week. They will enable you to return yourself to a calmer state and maintain focus during evolutions and they will enable you to extend your air. I ASSURE YOU.

At the end of the day you have to take care of yourself. If you need to send yourself for training then do it. Pull your boat like I did and make a working vacation. If you can’t afford that then get a book from Amazon. Reach out to the guys at Tactical Resilience, or Firefighter Craftmanship, or email me and I’ll give you what I’ve got.

Listen for the thunder and do your best to avoid the lightning.

  1. I think “weakness” does not adequately describe your experience. I would use “cumulative” to describe what you went through. In his class, Ric explores how the human nervous system reacts and response to stress. Firefighters are exposed to significant stressors every day and as the stress builds, at some point, it has to come out: job performance, family breakdowns, substance abuse.. take your pick. The mental skills you developed will go a long way in restoring job performance, extending your career and ultimately they will reduce your risk of developing the common chronic mental health problems that plague today’s fire service.

    1. I definitely agree that it’s cumulative. Even in my late 40’s I’d roll my eyes when I’d hear people talk about how stressful the fire service is. Even though I’d had some previous stress issues (see my piece; Suicide? Yeah, I Pondered it) I didn’t see it. I thought, “Stress? Are you kidding? Every third day hanging out with great guys, cooking, comradery and maybe getting to run into a fire, what could be better?” However, withing a few years, I could feel my stomach tighten when I’d pull into the station parking lot at the beginning of a shift and the weight of the world lift off my shoulders as I left the next day.

      Thanks for the comment!

    2. Great chatting yesterday Barry. This is powerful stuff that I hope catches on more.

      Don’t forget to subscribe 🙂

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