“Be brave. Be kind. Fight fires.”
That’s the motto of firefighters, like Hersch Wilson, who spend their lives walking toward, rather than away from, danger and suffering. As in Zen practice, firefighters are trained to be fully in the moment and present to each heartbeat, each life at hand. In this unique collection of true stories and practical wisdom, Wilson shares the Zen-like techniques that allow people like him to stay grounded while navigating danger, comforting others, and coping with their personal response to each crisis. Every life contains the unexpected and the unwelcome. How you cope with those inevitable events, more than the events themselves, defines the quality of your life. Firefighter Zen: A Field Guide to Thriving in Tough Times is an invaluable guide to meeting every day with your best calm, resilient, and optimistic self.
We hope you’ll enjoy this excerpt from the book.
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We had a car crash in the middle of an autumn night. We were a little ramped up because the call had gone out “young children involved.” As I drove to the scene, I felt anxiety building. There was that sinking feeling that this would be another bad call. I got there, saw the wrecked car, checked in with command, and was assigned patient care for one of the young girls. The chief told me that she was about eight years old, status unknown. I jogged down to the car, buckling my bunker jacket. I opened the car door and saw the little girl, who appeared uninjured but teary-eyed. I said, “Hi, my name is Hersch. I’m with the fire department. Are you okay?” In response, she just leaped into my arms, almost knocking me over. I was so relieved. She tightly held on to me, and I carried her across the median to the waiting ambulance. She was fine, and I thought, Best call ever!
It was such a simple thing. Not the most dramatic, nor the most memorable, emergency of my thirty-plus years as a firefighter, but one that sums up the joy that can come from first responding. There is darkness, tragedy, and suffering, to be sure. But every once in a while, a child leaps into your arms. And at that moment, you know you are doing the work you are meant to do, and that feeling is joy.
This is the thesis of this book. Life brings with it anxiety, suffering, and tragedy; stuff happens. The world feels a mess. Our lives turn on that dime. Yet we each have the ability and the capacity to find joy.
Here is the promise of this book. If we accept life for what it is, with no illusions, if we can keep our perspective when all around us individuals are losing theirs, if we take as fact that we will suffer and grieve, and finally, if we deeply commit to the understanding that the highest calling is service to others, then we have a shot at finding joy.
This is what being a volunteer firefighter has taught me, and I want to share these lessons with you.
Be brave. Be kind. Fight fires.
Why a Field Guide?
REEEE! “Hondo Fire Department, brush fire, 15 Lone Pine spur.”
Fifteen minutes later, I screeched to a halt in the driveway. I knocked on the door, but there was no answer. Behind the house, in a forest of piñon and juniper, black and gray smoke was billowing and blowing off to the east.
I went back to my car and picked up the fire department radio mike.
“Santa Fe Dispatch, Hondo 37 is on scene. Stand by for a size-up.”
I put the radio down and grabbed my “Incident Response Pocket Guide,” a field guide for fighting wildfires. I flipped through the pages until I found “Wildland Size-Up.” The guide would help me think through those critical first few minutes: what to report, what to think about, what help to ask for, and what the significant concerns were.
Field guides are infused with the experience and wisdom of generations of firefighters who have stood in the same position I was that day. In that sense, besides their practical worth, they have almost a totemic value, the words of our “ancestors” passed down as a guide to the ultimate task of firefighters: to impose order on chaos.
My truck is filled with field guides, practical, to-the-point writings on how to bring order to chaos.
I have a field guide on structure fires. I have medical protocols and a hazardous material guide in my messenger bag in the front seat. For a few years after 9/11, I carried a “Weapons of Mass Destruction” handbook. This caused consternation with my ten-year-old, who would read it on the way to school in the mornings.
Some of the field guide information we use so often it’s memorized — for example, the “ABCs” for patient care (airway, breathing, circulation), or sizing up a structure fire. Some of the information is esoteric but useful. With rattlesnake bites, it once advised to bring in the head of the rattlesnake so that the species could be identified, but with the caution that even just the head could “envenomate.” You can imagine that this might bring chaos to an emergency room. (Fortunately, now we can just bring a picture: better for us, the ER, and the snake.)
This field guide will not help you put out a fire, at least not a real one. Rather, it is the guide I wish I’d had when I became a firefighter (or when I turned eighteen!). In essence, it is a field guide for humans based on the experiences and stories of being a firefighter.
The guide is divided into five parts. Part 1 describes the “universe” as firefighters see it, a little darker and filled with urgency. Part 2 is about staying calm and solving problems. Part 3 is about facing the “dragons” — the crises — in our lives. Part 4 is about the time after tragedies. Part 5 introduces qualities and practices that can help us thrive. Like my wildfire guide, this guide can be read straight through, or you can read individual chapters based on your interests or needs.
About that wildfire. There was a bit of chaos in the beginning: a lot of anxiety, wondering whether we had enough resources and whether we could catch the fire before it got into dense forest. But once help arrived, we made a plan, everything settled down, and we got to the work of putting out the fire. It took us the majority of the morning to knock it down and extinguish it. We were lucky; had a few more hours gone by without it being caught, we would have lost a lot of homes.
In the end, I threw my field guide back into my messenger bag and headed home. That day it was Fire Department 1, Wildfire 0. I’m reasonably sure our “ancestors” would have approved.
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Hersch Wilson and his wife, Laurie, became volunteer firefighters in 1986. He has worked as an organizational consultant, pilot, outdoor adventure trainer, professional dancer, and author. He writes for Backdraft magazine and other publications. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Find out more about his work at www.HerschWilson.com.
Excerpted from the book Firefighter Zen. Copyright © 2020 by Hersch Wilson.