Last week (November 6-11, 2011), I attended the Georgia Smoke Divers (GSD) training in Dalton, GA. My head is a jumble of concepts, experiences, connections. I need to get my thinking out of my head and organized. (There is a book in there somewhere!) I begin the effort by relating a very intense, personal experience that added a dimension to my own knowledge base beyond my wildest dreaming.
On Monday (Day 2) when Smoke Diver candidates were learning in environments that were relatively safe, Smoke Daddy David Rhodes (GSD Incident Commander--a.k.a. Rhoadie) asked me if I wanted to go into the burn building. I immediately said, "No!" But I began to think about it. How could I possibly have any way of REALLY knowing what firefighters contend with in their decision making without experiencing the environment in which they operate? I knew that this would probably be the safest day to attempt something like this and that Rhoadie wouldn't have offered if he thought I'd be in danger, so I changed my mind.
Within a matter of minutes, the word was out that I was going to go into the burn building. The guys found a suit that would fit me. One of the firefighters, Captain Charlie Long, Johns Creek GA Fire Department, offered to take me through the building. Various instructors helped me don the gear (which weighed about 60 pounds) and show me how the breathing apparatus worked. The suit was huge and bulky; the boots were about four sizes too big; I could hardly walk. Charlie got in my face and told me that if I removed the mask while we were in the building, I WOULD DIE! He handed me a thermal imaging camera and we entered the burn building.
The building was so smokey and dark, I couldn't see my hand in front of my face. Immediately, I realized these guys work with limited senses: they are blind; the gloves they wear limit the sense of touch; the mask prevents the senses of taste and smell; the sounds in an incident often obscure or distort sounds with meaning. The experience is absolutely disorienting and frightening. I hung onto Charlie for dear life. Within a minute, I said to Charlie, "OK. I'm ready to leave." But Charlie told me to scan the room with my thermal imaging camera. He said, "What do you see?" I realized I could "see" with the camera. Although, at one point, I realized the person I was seeing was actually my own reflection in a mirror.
After a scan of the room, I once again said, "OK. Let's go." Charlie said, "Oh, but you have to see the burn room." We inched our way down the hall and into the room with the fire. Charlie told me to point the camera at the ceiling. The camera told me the temperature on the ceiling of the burn room was 650 degrees. At the mid-point of the room, where our heads were, it was about 300 degrees. I was beginning to feel my internal temperature rise. I said, "OK, Charlie, time to go." Charlie said, "We can't go back the way we came. Another team has come in behind us. We have to go down the steps to go out." DOWN THE STEPS???!!!! I fought hard to keep calm. For two days, I had been listening to the instructors work with the candidates on regulating their breathing. I consciously began to breathe very slowly and deeply. This help to calm me. We moved slowly to the top of the steps. Charlie put me in front of him. I had to find the top of the steps by feeling my way. It took an eternity to get to the next floor, but I made it unscathed.
There are multiple levels to this experience. Taking it at face value, the experience was one to cross off my bucket list. At a deeper level, I realized that I was making decisions moment by moment to stay calm, to breathe, to keep moving forward even when I don't know what is in front of me. But the ultimate lesson came from Charlie Long. By keeping me focused outward, Charlie kept me from turning into myself. When we turn inward, we become closed systems. Closed systems implode on themselves. Having someone to help keep us focused outward is invaluable, but we need to be situationally aware in those moments when we are alone to motivate ourselves to be outwardly focused.