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Citizen’s Fire Academy: The Last Hurrah

Updated: Feb 26, 2020

I’ve done many extreme things in my life. I moved to Australia by myself at the age of 18. I moved across the country on a whim. I ate fish from a food stand on the side of the road in the Philippines (not advised). I jumped out of a plane and went skydiving. So when I found myself in the middle of a ladder shooting up from the firetruck, staring down at the ground from between the slats, why couldn’t I muster up some of that courage to just keep going?

As we wrap up Citizen’s Fire Academy, we are getting to the more exciting, thrilling and challenging parts of the course. Unfortunately, I’m missing out on the most fun things: a live fire, driving the fire truck and using the ropes to scale a building, but perhaps I’ll get to mark those things off my bucket list later in life.

In the last two weeks, we conquered learning how to use the firetruck, attach hoses and clean it all up after the work is done. Long story short: figuring out how to get the right pressure, water, hoses, etc. is not the job for me. Just look at the panel and all of these switches! Within the first 10 minutes of getting to a fire, the engineer is the busiest person getting everything running smoothly.

After we accomplished that, we went onto climbing the ladder into the training tower. As I hinted  above, this was the biggest challenge for me throughout the whole course. There’s something about open stairs and ladders that sends me into a sheer panic. I believe it’s because I can see through the slats to the ground, or whatever harrowing foundation would be at the bottom of my fall to death. In reality, I would have to be the size of a small toddler to slip through the ladder, but it’s amazing how your mind plays tricks.

Not only during this lesson, but throughout the entire academy, my breath has been the one element that has saved me from flying into a panic. It’s the breath work that is taught in YFFR classes and an integral part of YFFR protocol that was so crucial to staying calm and completing the task at hand. From class two with the CPAT test, to last week climbing the ladder; I simply needed to stop, slow my breathing, listen and count my inhales and exhales, and then resume the task with focus and a calm presence.

By utilizing this breath work in academy, I was training my body and mind to utilize it during other stressful times in my life. During a traffic jam on the interstate, I found myself de-escalating through breath rather than getting worked up about how late I was going to be to a meeting. After a stressful conference call, I took a few moments to breath in silence before I went onto my next meeting. I found myself entering that next meeting with renewed clarity and the thoughts from my previous interactions had dissipated.

While climbing a 50 foot ladder, trying to remember which nozzle to turn on the firetruck, or manhandling a wild hose, that breath work is all the more important. It’s so easy to let your mind go into a spiral of negativity and doubt. In fact, that’s what the human brain is wired to do. It takes practice and patience to remember to turn to your breath and turn the dial to calm confidence.

Most importantly, a huge shout of gratitude to the West Des Moines Fire Department for putting on an annual citizen’s fire academy. I encourage any of you to participate in any first responder citizen’s academy that you can find. Not only do you get to participate and push yourself with drills and training, but you discover a profound respect for those who do this job day in and day out. If you’re like me, you’ll quickly discover this isn’t the job for you. But that made my gratitude and respect for firefighters grow even bigger. The physical and mental demand of the job, the skillset and the desire to run towards danger is something I will leave to the experts. But these experts deserve every ounce of heroism. This job is certainly not for everyone, but for those who do it, thank you. Thank you for your service and dedication.

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