29 March 2008

Preparing for Fear

For several years I was a member of a volunteer fire department. It was the 70's and not too many women wanted to be firefighters. In fact, I wasn't there because I wanted to be a firefighter. I was there because I wanted a job with the county's emergency dispatch center and I needed some emergency experience to get my foot in the door.

Being a volunteer was a transforming experience. Not only did it prepare me for working in public safety, it helped me to think systematically. The hours spent training and drilling were helpful to me, though most of the things I learned to do, I never had to use. I could put on my SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus) in the same time as the rest of the crew, making certain the seal was good and the regulator working, but when it came right down to it, I wanted to be in the dispatch room, not the room that was on fire. Years ago there was a 20 minute rule; if the fire was 20 minutes old, you assume the structure was unsafe. I had the 20 second rule and assumed a structure was unsafe the very moment it caught fire. It would be perilous to your health if you were in my way as I planned on exiting the building in well under 20 seconds.

We had state mandated training to keep our skills and safety knowledge in top form. You do the training because in an actual emergency, your brain is going to revert to what it knows by rote. You memorize protocols because fear and adrenaline mix together in a deleterious cocktail and put you into a fight or flight mode. Since you are being paid to fight, you have to train yourself to get through the flight stage. Without proper training, you are likely to make bad decisions and react to the emotions of those around you, instead of what you know is right. I know because I have personal experience with this phenomenon.

The first time I was alone in the firehouse and the fire phone rang, my heart was in my throat. I had to answer the phone and with all the training I had done, nobody had taught me how to field an emergency call. I had always assumed there would be someone there to help me. They had assumed I knew what to do. This was long before 911 and there was only one emergency line . The 'hot phone' sat in a cubby hole accessible from either inside the office or outside in the apparatus room. It had a special Claxton alarm bell that rang loudly enough to make certain it would wake up the soundest sleeper. The fire phone was also connected to a siren that had to be blown. The siren was like an old air raid siren. While it was blowing the whole firehouse shook and you could hear nothing else. Once you had the information from the caller, you would set it off twice for a medical emergency and three times for a fire. I knew how to blow the siren but I didn't know what to expect from an emergency call. The sound of the Claxton was like fingernails on the chalkboard of my soul. I had to answer, no one else was there. My hand shook as I reached into the hole and picked up the receiver. In my most officious voice I said, "Fire Department, emergency..." all the while hoping it was a wrong number. Before I could finish there were screams and scuffling noises and the hysterical caller was shouting at the top of her lungs. "Help! Help! Help!" She was obviously scared to death. "Hello! Fire Depart..." "HELP! HELP! HELP!" My anxiety level increased and I shouted back, "Hello? What's going on? Hello? Hello? What's going on?!!"

Back and forth we shouted at each other for what seemed like minutes, each time the drama and intensity increased but little information was exchanged. I stood in the apparatus room, screaming like a wild woman, "What's the problem??" Finally she yelled, "MY HOUSE IS ON FIRE, COME QUICKLY!!" So glad to finally have a piece of information I screamed back, "Get everyone out!! We'll be right there!!" I hung up the phone just to realize I had no idea in the world where the woman was calling from. Other volunteers had heard the bells of the fire phone going off and had run in and grabbed their turn-outs. They stood waiting for me to tell them what was going on and what type of equipment they would need. All I could say was "Structure Fire!" They began to scramble for the engine. Fortunately, fires normally get reported by multiple callers and before I could panic about not knowing where she was, I had multiple neighbors calling with a location. No one else knew what a stupid and potentially catastrophic thing I had done, but I did.

As I continue my studies on fear, I've been thinking about my public safety training. I see a correlation between training for emergencies and training our minds to think biblically. We need to prepare our minds for the bumps and bruises of life let alone the traumatic events. Although we have no way of knowing what they are going to look like, we know they are coming. "For man is born to trouble as sparks fly upward." (Job 7:5)

Lord willing, my first post on fear will be in a couple of days. I only hope that it will bless my readers as much as the Lord is blessing me to prepare for it.

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