The alarm goes off. An obnoxious sound that creates a cringeworthy response from a comfortable deep sleep. The time is 5:00am, only seven hours since I was able to lay down in my own bed. As my brain bullies me into semi consciousness, it begins the Einstein like equations. How long did I sleep? What do I have to do today? What is the dose of Magnesium Sulphate on an Eclampsia patient? Random thoughts insult my weary mind as I stand motionless in the shower. The thoughts then change to how easy life might be if I turned to a 9 to 5 desk job, getting to come home every night and be with my family, sleeping in my own bed. Then I laugh and remind myself that I would have killed someone by the end of my first day in a cubicle.
I creep around trying not to wake my family as I pack the multiple bags required for a 24 hour shift. My german shepherd’s tag clinks as her feet tap on the wooden floor, negating my efforts at stealth. I need to pack multiple changes of uniform in case I get vomited on by a GI bleed, climb down an elevator shaft or have to load soot covered hose back onto the engine. PT gear needs to be packed to make sure I get the all important workout done. Computer bag is next, ensuring I have all of the hardware and books to accompany the never ending education or a modern day firefighter/paramedic. Finally, bags of food need to be prepared to cover 24 hours, with the potential of being forced to hold over for the next shift. I quietly open my son’s bedroom door and say a silent blessing before gently closing the door. I make sure I kiss my wife goodbye and tell her I love her, not knowing if this will be the last time I ever get to say those words.
My commute to the station is 75 minutes exactly if there is no traffic. I listen to a Podcast to educate myself and make the most of the extended journey. In my mind, my goal is to arrive at the station more intelligent than I left my home. I pay multiple tolls to get to my fire station, spending an average of fifteen dollars in gas every time I drive to and from my second home. I get to the station half an hour early to ensure my brother or sister firefighter can avoid a last minute call and get home to their family. Then the day begins, checking out gear, running tools and inventorying medical equipment, trying to prepare for whatever the universe may throw at us today.
To some, the badge on our chest is a piece of metal that is given to you when you are hired by a department. To the rest of us, it represents the honour of protecting your community. It is a symbol of sacrifice for the wearer and respect to the citizens that we serve. This respect is not handed out like some flyer for a new restaurant in a busy high street. The role of a first responder is that of a pledge; to be the best version of yourself to protect the men and women in your first due. There are t shirts out there that spew the most narcissistic rhetoric. “We fight what you fear” or “First in Last out” are some of the vomit inducing phrases that adorn attire aimed at letting the public know what a damn hero you are. These same men and women are the first to post selfies on 9/11, reminding us all that they are part of the same profession as the 343 brave men that lost their lives in the World Trade Center.
So the question begs; “What is your why?” Why do you wake up in the morning? What do you hope to have achieved by the time your head hits the pillow at the end of the day? These are very powerful questions in a world where a day can be comprised of Facebook and Call of Duty. Knowing your why is fundamental to excelling in every aspect of your life. What kind of life do you want to live and what impact do you want to have on the world? As a first responder, what was the fire that was burning inside when you made the decision to apply to fire academy, police academy or EMT/Paramedic school? What did you dream of doing once you passed the state test and were finally wearing the uniform you’d envisioned yourself wearing?
This burning desire is what gets me up at 5am, tears me away from my family for a relatively small salary. My desire has always been to serve my community, being there when people are having their worst day ever. There seems to be a delusion that a country is made great by it’s leaders. Forgive me if I disagree but I believe it’s the men and women who serve their communities that are the backbone of countries around the world. The common denominator in all of the religious scriptures is to serve others with kindness and compassion. This basic human desire to help our fellow man has been demonstrated time and time again. From the New Yorkers of 9/11 to the Londoners of 7/5, people have found incredible compassion and courage in times of tragedy.
The “why” also drives all other aspects of our life. If you have a passion to serve, then there is also a desire to be the best damn firefighter, police officer or EMT you can possibly be. This involves training both your body and mind. This passion is what gets you off your arse and into the gym, forging the body into an efficient machine. The average first responder’s career will span 20 - 30 years and there is no excuse for not being able to do the job right up until the last day. The fifty year old veteran should be a leader both physically and mentally, ready to teach the rookie how to stay alive in this dangerous profession.
The same aggressive attitude must be applied to the skills we are responsible for. Whether subduing a combative felon, cutting a trench on a five story apartment complex or suctioning a newborn’s airway, these skills need to be drilled. To quote Navy SEAL Richard Marcinko, “The more you sweat in training, the less you bleed in combat”. This rigorous training mentality must be applied to all aspects of your job. The question I always ask is “How would you feel if your family died because the rescuer hadn’t trained?” This is not a profession where complacency is acceptable.
To perform at a high level as a first responder, we have to view ourselves as athletes; tactical athletes. We need a team the same way an MMA fighter or ice hockey player does. Most of us are required to work through the night when the average citizen is sleeping. This constant sleep deprivation means that we have to strengthen the pillars of health that are in our control to offset the damage from shift work. Nutrition is an area that can make or break us, creating a strong base or an unstable structure just ready to collapse. Stress levels have to be controlled through some sort of mindfulness practice, whether meditation, art or fishing. Clearing the mind of the white noise of everyday life creates a clam that resets the stress level. The scenes we are exposed to can crush the mind if these areas are not reinforced.
Physical training is where the “why“ truly comes into place. It takes a lot of self discipline and motivation to push yourself to the edge in your training. We have to be able to keep going when the average person would have thrown in the towel. Mental toughness is imperative when lives are at stake. Stress inoculation is the other element of training, creating physically exhausting scenarios that test us mentally to ensure we can perform when we are needed the most. The person you are training to save doesn’t care if you are tired., hot or bleeding. There are two outcomes; success and failure and the latter is not an option. Reminding ourselves of why we chose this profession is what drives us through the pain cave, the unbearable pain of the red line.
Bullfighter Juan Belmonte was quoted saying “No life worthy of the name consists of anything more than the continual series of struggles to develop one’s character through the medium of what everyone has chosen as a career”. We have been blessed with the amazing opportunity to wear the badge, tasked with protecting and rescuing those who are unable to do so themselves. I have been charged with coming home to the family I love with all of my heart and my crazy german shepherd. They are my “Why”. What is yours?
Don’t forget to listen to my amazing guests on the Behind The Shield Podcast on itunes, stitcher or soundcloud.