When you’re driving an axe into the door of a home on fire, a lot of things run through your mind. Is there anyone inside? Will the introduction of oxygen cause the fire to flash? Do these turnouts make me look fat? But when my pager went off this morning at 2:30 a.m., jettisoning me out of bed after a kiss for my wife and then out the door to the station, I had no reason to believe that I would experience something I had only experienced once before as a firefighter, early in my volunteer career. As we stood at the door in our three-man team prepared to enter the burning, single-level structure, I suddenly felt claustrophobic. My gear, strapped tightly over my turnouts and sealing me into my Nomex fire-proof hood and oxygen mask — things meant to protect me from the dangers I was about to expose myself to — felt more like a straight jacket. I felt my heart begin to race. My breathing rate increased. Inside my mask, the three green indicator lights displaying a full air supply dropped to two.
As the door popped and the first licks of flame appeared, I took a deep breath and remembered what a captain told me all those years ago: What we do goes against our normal instincts. The rational part of the mind, which a firefighter has to override in order to do what needs to be done, occasionally surfaces and asks, “What the hell are you DOING? There’s fire in there!” My mask briefly fogged as I chuckled to myself, then pulled the hose line for our initial attack and knockdown of the fire. Ironically, it was while inside surrounded by smoke and almost zero visibility, that I had a moment of clarity.
The true test of character isn’t measured by our ability to avoid moments of panic or fear in our lives; it’s about how we respond in those moments. As we went through the home, dousing flames and searching for occupants, my panic left and I couldn’t help but notice the photographs occasionally illuminated by my headlamp. Smiling faces of children and family captured during a different kind of moment, now peering out from the smoke. As we made our way from room to room, searching closets and under beds, the voice of our duty chief came over the radio informing us the sole occupant was not on the premises. As we found out later, the owner, age 90, had lost his wife just a few months ago and was with family in Arizona.
And now, on this particular morning, he had lost his home as well.
It’s the kind of character test I hope never to face, nor am I sure I could pass. I felt for him. Deeply.
Most of the time, a firefighter’s red, glossy eyes are a result of the smoke and heat. But sometimes… the smoke lingers long after the engine has returned to the station. For me, thoughts of panic and character suddenly seemed unimportant compared to the test that man will be facing long after I return home for my second kiss of the morning.
(Ned Hickson is a syndicated columnist with News Media Corporation. His first book, Humor at the Speed of Life, is available in paperback or eBook from Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble or request your signed copy from Port Hole Publications.)