Imagine yourself zipped in, covered up, and padded out–dressed in your full turnout gear, efficiently sliding your SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus) onto your back, as you sit facing backwards in the jump seat of the fire engine, sirens wailing, lights blaring on your way to a fire.
Your hand instinctively makes its way to your breast pocket, where you adjust your radio–your lifeline to the outside–and make sure you have it set to the working fire channel. As the air horn blasts through an intersection, you continue to set yourself up for what lies ahead. You make sure your leather structure gloves are in their regular pocket, easy to reach. You tighten up your SCBA shoulder straps, turn on the voice amplifier on your mask, and glance at your flathead axe, ready to grab it in one swift motion.
The adrenaline kicks in as you listen through your headset to the radio traffic. It alerts you that multiple phone calls are coming in reporting this fire, and your engine will likely be the first due rig into this burning structure.
Your nose instantly detects the distinctive odor of burning house materials, as the fire engine rounds the last corner and arrives on scene. Dark gray turbulent smoke billows outwards and now you see the orange white heat of the flames crackling violently upwards, from the Alpha Bravo corner of the house. It’s ripping.
Everything goes quickly now. Your captain gives the orders, and you jump off the rig with all your gear in place and grab the 1 ¾” hose line, making your way to the front door, the hose paying out behind you. You reach back and grab your bottle valve. With a quick turn, your air bottle is primed and ready. Your ears note the audio alarm bell, which will warn you when your air bottle is almost out of air. You note the chirp of your pass-activated device, which will alert other firefighters if it (or you) remains motionless for over 30 seconds. All systems are go.
Kneeling on the front lawn beside the nozzle, you pull the mask over your face before the dark gray smoke envelops you. A quick visual scan reveals a fire that seems to have doubled in size already. Hood, helmet, lights, and gloves on, you push the second stage regulator into place and take your first breath of the positive pressure flow of compressed air from your air pack.
With water pressurized in the hose and nozzle in hand, you instinctively lower your body to your hands and knees in the doorway as the heat bears down on top of you. With your Captain behind you, you make entry.
Portal of Darkness
Do you know the first thing you and your partner will see when you enter a burning structure, the hot gaseous atmosphere pushing you to a lower and lower profile?
Utter Black. Total Darkness. (Note: it’s not like the movies.)
In the darkness, the deadly smoke has swallowed you whole. It is as if your eyes were closed, as if the sky had lost its stars, as if all were cloaked by the deepest coldest waters.
In this unforgiving darkness, your auditory senses become acutely focused to the sounds emerging all around you. You notice a surrounding roaring din, punctuated with the sounds of crackling, creaking, and crashing. You push onward, thankful for your helmet, as the deluge of sound falls around you like a thunderstorm.
Other senses become heightened while your vision is lost. You notice that you have become aware of the feel of your immediate environment. The walls may no longer feel like the supportive structures you are accustomed to. Through your gloves the walls may feel hot or even spongy. Perhaps you feel heat singeing through to your knees in the flooring or carpet that you are crawling on.
You reach back to check for your partner. Yep, you tap a helmet. You continue in the utter darkness, looking for the glow of fire.
The first time that I ever experienced myself in the black oven of this arcade on steroids, I noticed something. Small.
Yet it caught my attention in all that chaos.
And I made note of it, so that the next time I found myself there, I sought it out again–eagerly.
With some time and experience on my side, it is now one of the first things I go to as I enter this wildly unstable environment. In this engulfing darkness, with multiple tasks to accomplish, for a split second, I become acutely aware of the solitary cocoon I am in, swaddled like a babe, by my turnouts and all my gear.
For a split second, time slows down on the inside of my cocoon, and I hear my adrenaline-spiked breathing. I hear my breathing, and in my cocoon, I slow it way down, and I drop into a place where it is calm and quiet, like a smooth clear lake.
Into the glass surface of the clear lake I drop, with barely a splash, and fall into a vast container–a cave lit from within.
Here there is calm, steady light.
From this place I proceed with my tasks and objectives, while the dark world falls around me. Inside the light cave I am focused, clear, even at peace.
Find It at Your Center
For a time, I accepted that it was only in these extreme moments that I would stumble upon the cave of light. Imagine my surprise, when in my life outside of turnouts and uniform, I once again encountered this same tranquil place. As I sat in the quiet stillness, a beginner in my own emerging meditation practice, I found the same clear glass lake of light, sitting calmly at my center, waiting for me.
Where do we go when we are surrounded by darkness, chaos, frustration, or instability? We can lean on our friends, family, mentors, and teachers. Perhaps hiking out into mountainous terrain with olive trees as our companions, or sinking our toes into watery and sandy beaches are perfect ways to comfort us in these moments.
For me, it has been a surprising comfort to find that in the midst of my own dark moments, I do not have to travel very far. I can access this place from wherever I am, whether in line at the grocery store, sitting in traffic, even in the roar of a structure fire. I take a deep breath, let go, and gently drop into my center.
Take a close look if you wish–maybe now, today, or perhaps it will be the next time you are in the middle of a dark place. Close your eyes, let your thoughts float by, and find yourself at your very center.
Maybe you, too, will be surprised at what you find there.