Every public firefighting organisation has some sort of recruit firefighter program, which ranges in length from 10 to 25 weeks of training. The day in the life of a firefighter in Australia not only take on emergency response but activities including how to put out fires. These days firefighting is only part of the overall recruit training course.
Life as a firefighter:
In 1978 I became a volunteer firefighter, and after finding out that people actually got paid to put out fires. They also did stuff I thought was pretty exciting. I joined as a career firefighter in 1994.
Even though I had been a volunteer firefighter, the type of training program was a new experience. Not only was it intense and at times physically demanding to the extreme. It created a sense of personal achievement that I had only felt, some years before, whilst in the army.
Instructors told us some awesome personal war stories recalled from their experiences in the field. Every recruit listened intently and we all knew that to perform our job effectively and safely as they did, sometimes under extreme condition, it would require knowledge, discipline and dedication.
The requirements for these personal attributes was reinforced almost daily throughout my career whilst on fire stations.
Day in the life of a firefighter Australia changing lives:
The drills we performed tested our resolve time after time. Fires were set alight. Using wood pallets and the like, designed to place us in conditions we could expect to find when we arrived at our first house fire. Sometimes it was a little too realistic melting helmets and scolding any skin that somehow becomes exposed. Modern training facilities are a little better controlled today but just as real.
A few weeks into the course we started doing some hot fire drills. Using Breathing Apparatus so we could get close to the fire and conduct a search through the smoke. Jack (name changed) and myself were sent into a single story structure to conduct a search and extinguished the fire.
When we entered through the door, with our hose at the ready, I noticed that it was easier to see that I had anticipated. We could see the fire burning nicely in the corner of a room, just down a passage and to the right.
Taking it to the fire
The heat was pretty intense but we stayed low as instructed and were able to move right up to the fire. I thought great, lets put this thing out and save the day. I opened up the nozzle and bingo, the environment inside the room turned to absolute crap.
We couldn’t see one centimeter in front of our mask and there was a funny burning sensation on the back of my neck that just didn’t feel right. Back then we didn’t wear flash hoods which are designed to protect the skin around the neck and ears from the effects of heat.
I hit the floor and things got a little better. Then I was overcome with fear and a desire to get out and save my life. Maybe this was it – would my career come to an end right at this point or was it a personal test to see if I had what it takes to be a firefighter. After a short time, maybe five seconds, I took three very large breaths. Thinking to my self that surely the instructors aren’t trying to kill us.
Training and Life:
This was a defining moment in my training and life firefighting. Why did I take the three deep breaths? Why did I hit the floor? Jack and I survived the experience and found out, after we received some minor first aid, that one litre of water expands 1700 time when converted to steam and that’s why we lost visibility and turned the room into a sauna.
Some years later one of my colleagues was pushed some distance down a passageway from what was identified as a steam explosion. He survived to tell the tale but was very lucky.
Later that night while laying down to get some well-earned sleep in the dormitory. I started to consider what had happened. I wondered why I took the three large breaths and how that had brought me back to reality and allowed me to take control. Then deal with the situation, perform a primary search and report back to instructor evil at the entry door.
Learning from the Military:
My mind moved to a time in the army when we were being tested during a battle efficiency test. A 15km forced march in full battle gear. The day before the test our officers hyped us up to get ready for what was a pretty difficult test. Many soldiers had great difficulty making the grade and getting through the whole course, which reflected poorly on the officers.
About 6 km into the test a couple of soldiers started struggling which was seen by our leaders as weakness. Especially considering that we had been training for weeks to be ready for this day. Another soldier called Tom (Name changed) and myself took pride in our fitness. We wanted everyone to get through so we carried the heavy weapons. Which somehow gave us a few browny points with our officers.
At the 12km point, while forced marching up a steep incline, that seemed to go on forever, I started to feel like I had no more to give. The situation went around and around in my head and thoughts questioning my desire to take the heavy weapon?
Was I going to let my mates down and the rest of the team? One of the officers who seemed to like the way I performed over the last few months and had said during performance review that he expected a lot from me must have noticed I was struggling.
He looked me in the eye and said “soldier you have the ability to push through and achieve great things. Don’t give up now – pain is weakness leaving the body – if you stop now I will take your weapon and stick it where the sun don’t shine”. He continued “take three deep breaths and think about what your doing now not whats 100m up the road”. My first real introduction to mindfulness.
With that, I did what he said and took the biggest three breaths I could under the circumstances. My inner voice said “you can do this – you are better than this”. It was then that an overwhelming sense of purpose and drive took over I moved back into formation and pushed through.
Somehow the three deep breaths and positive self-talk had re-centred my mind and redirected my actions. At the 14.5km point, another soldier collapsed with exhaustion, so Tom and I took it in turns carrying him with full gear. To the finish line where we all needed to qualify by shooting a number of small targets. Everyone got through and the unit Commanding Officer commended our leaders on the achievement.
Back to reality:
As I lay there in the dormitory I had a light bulb moment while considering what had happened while firefighting. The three breaths were the link to reducing confusion, often caused by adrenaline surging through the body, and allowed focused thought when the proverbial ‘shit hit the fan’.
Whether the breaths were a result of my military training or something deeper within my mind. It just happened and allowed me to function in a manner expected by my organisation and the community that I would later be protecting.
What if I could control this in less critical situations? Would it help with control and performance? Well, the answer is yes. Over the years after recruits, I researched and developed that skill by using meditation, reading and observing good leaders. This helped me focus on a given task, priorities and move onto the next task.
The military calls it ‘front site focus’ and it does work. Instead of trying to do multiple tasks at once, if you select them in order of priority. Complete one at a time then move to the next you will achieve far more in less time.
Leaders and flexibility
As a leader sometimes priorities change so you need flexibility. A method of considering and re-prioritising of tasks as you move through them. During house fires, we search one room at a time and unless there are other critical factors. You may already know which room the casualty is in, we start the search nearest the fire to remove the most vulnerable first.
Goals, strategies and tasking are important factors for every organisation but even more important for the leader. Even though, they may be primarily focused on small to medium outcomes they provide a structure and pathway to completion.
How many times in modern work life do we allow ourselves to be distracted by checking emails or Facebook? The beeps that notify us that there is another message in our inbox are a barrier to focusing on the job at hand. Unless you are waiting for a critical email or post, ‘turn them off’ you will get so much more done.
A common attribute of a good leader is the ability to focus on the macro goals, even under high levels of stress.
Career firefighters life range widely in abilities, both physical and mental, but they have one thing in common, they all start with the same training which builds a bond with an ultimate goal to protect life and property (in that order). Every day is different and most of all a day in the life of a firefighter (Australia) is rewarding.