On the recommendation of a friend, I read Lawrence Gonzales’ book Deep Survival: Who lives, who dies, and why*. The book chronicles multiple stories of survival and their intersection with science to help explain why a person may or may not make it through their own life-threatening challenges. What becomes evident in studying stories of survival is that there are commonalities among those who are able to overcome their dire circumstances. Lawrence states that among the key common attributes of the survivor are: the ability to turn fear into focus, the ability to think, analyze and act, a willingness to do whatever it takes to live, and having “never give up” attitude.
As firefighters, we are often placed in the midst of dangerous settings. There is no assurance that each one of us will being going home at the end of the shift despite efforts to mitigate the hazards. Far too many factors lie outside of our realm of control. Our training, experience, and efforts can influence the factors within our control, however. It is the job of the fire service to help foster attributes of a survivor within each member our departments.
Many of us depend on past instruction to guide our decision-making; it fits well within the structure of our para-military organizations and SOG driven responses. Case studies that Gonzales examined indicate that those who rely solely on a set of “rules” struggle when confronted with survival scenarios. One particular incident involved an off-duty fireman who found himself off course in the Colorado wilderness. Once lost, he became hypothermic and exposed to the elements, yet he still could not bring himself to start a fire because he knew that the area was under a burn-ban. Gonzales discusses how the classic rule-follower will first attempt to sort through how the situation should be handled based on comparison to previous direction. Only if that instruction matches the necessary action for survival will the rule-follower act. Under many circumstances this is a correct way to process stimuli, however, it leaves little room for out-of-the-box solutions or potentially life-saving reactions. A survivor recognizes that there is sometimes a disconnect between past instruction and what needs to be done to stay alive.
Take for instance how performing a breach is widely taught as means of egress.Yet, the decision to punch a hole for footing or to crawl through often brings hesitation. Experience has shown me that it is difficult to accept the mindset that the structure can be manipulated. The reason lies in the fact that in other areas of our lives, we are preached to that destruction has negative consequences. Survival requires a paradigm-shift. It says that a clear acceptance of the new situation must take place and rapid adaptation follow suit. So-called “rules to go by” and prior perceptions must go by the wayside to allow for swift action. Windows can be broken, doors can be removed, and walls can be breached. This is applicable to crews that are both interior and exterior. Our training has to reinforce this concept.
We must train to survive. It means going beyond the memorization of a few acronyms, such as LUNAR or the IAFF’s GRAB LIVES; remember that the rule followers could get caught up in trying to recall what “A” stands for, and forget to survive. It means that we must instill in each person going interior that it is far more important to be able to recognize, and communicate, internal landmarks than it is to remember to lie perpendicular to a wall. It means that we place more value on finding secondary egress points than we do on shining a light towards the ceiling. I am not dismissing the value of these actions, but we must consideration what the real priority is. While self-survival courses try to provide the firefighter with a long list of actions that should be performed in the midst of a mayday, they should never fail to constantly reiterate the basics: calling a mayday, communicating pertinent, life-saving details, and how to self-extricate.
We have to build survival attributes in our members. This is accomplished through a continued pursuit of hands-on, stress initiating repetition. The military refers to it as stress-inoculation training. While talking through appropriate action is helpful, it is only in the midst of the struggle that we will be able to recognize and mold responses. This is why Navy Seals train almost exclusively with live rounds.
Minus a few exceptions, the actions taken by the firefighter(s) involved in the mayday, whether positive or negative, will have a greater impact on the outcome of the mayday than the actions taken by a deployed rapid intervention team. Firefighter self-survival training has seen a surge of momentum, and rightly so. LODD and close call reports spotlight the need for more of it. We call ourselves fighters, slayers, rogues, warriors. Perhaps it’s time we do more to include “survivor” on that list.
*Gonzales, Lawrence. Deep Survival: who lives, who dies, and why. New York. W.W. Norton. 2003