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Colo. fire instructor prepares trainees for mental stress

Alan Ziff's goal is to prepare them technically to handle the job, and to prepare them mentally to deal with the stresses that come with being a firefighter


By Mike Spence
The Pueblo Chieftain

PUEBLO, Colo. — Fighting fires is Alan Ziff’s life’s work. More than that, it is his passion. Ziff, 62, has been involved in fire fighting for 34 years. He quit counting the structure fires he battled when the number hit 1,000.

What makes someone run into a burning building, while the first reaction of most people (or rats, cockroaches and just about every other mobile organism) is to get the heck out of there?

“It takes a certain type of person,” said Ziff, who is the chair of the Fire Science Department and Fire Academy director at Pueblo Community College.

Most people consider fire fighters courageous, or even noble. After all, they often risk their lives to save others.

Ziff doesn’t think of himself in those terms.

“It’s a fun thing,” Ziff said. “I don’t feel noble. It’s a little crazy. It’s fun.”

So it’s pretty clear Ziff was born to be a fire fighter. But no one — Ziff included — would recommend the path he took to become one.

Two of the obstacles he cleared: Surviving a helicopter crash and an incident where he was shot three times.

Crash course

Ziff initially was studying for a doctorate in anthropology at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. He was doing sub-arctic archaeology in remote locations in the Yukon.

More specifically, Ziff was doing research in the Yukon’s Kuskokwim Delta.

“It’s a huge area and there are no roads,” Ziff said. “All exploration is done by helicopter.”

Ziff and his group were on a helicopter bound for one of those remote locations when a goose hit the helicopter’s intake.

“It dropped us out of the sky,” Ziff said. “Some people were injured.”

Worse, Ziff had no emergency response training. He did what he could to help, but the feeling of helplessness bothered him.

“When we got back to Fairbanks, I wanted to be trained in case we had another situation,” Ziff said. Officials there told Ziff if he wanted to be an EMT, he’d have to join a fire department — that’s where the training is.

“So, I joined a fire department,” Ziff said. There was another catch.

“The chief told me, ‘If you want to be an EMT, you have to be a fire fighter, too. We cross train.’ ” Ziff was determined to become an EMT, so he trained to become a fire fighter as well.

“The first structure fire I went to, the chief gave me an ax and said, ‘That wall, take it apart.’ I said, ‘That wall doesn’t look like it’s on fire.’ He said, ‘You won’t know until you take it apart.’ So I destroyed that wall. It was fun.

“When the property owner came over, he had this serious face, I thought he was going to hit me. He patted me on the back and said, ‘Heck of a job. Thanks for coming.’ ” Ziff was stunned.

“I destroyed a wall and they’re going to pay me? And thank me?” Ziff asked. “I want to be a firefighter, not an anthropologist.”

Pivotal moments

Ziff pursued his career change. The first year on the job was a learning experience, including two pivotal incidents that affect him to this day.

Ziff had to learn all the jobs at the fire station, from fire fighter to EMT to dispatcher. It was on a routine shift as a dispatcher — seemingly far from the action — that Ziff encountered one of his most harrowing moments.

A drug-crazed individual entered the fire station looking for a drug safe that some fire stations — but not all — have.

Ziff asked the man if he could help him. After a few minutes of tense conversation, the man pulled a gun and threatened him.

In the middle of the confrontation, a call came in. The man thought Ziff had tripped an alarm and panicked. He shot Ziff three times, once in the arm, once in the leg and once in the abdomen.

“I fell over a chair and he ran away,” Ziff said. “I had to dispatch my own rescue before I passed out from blood loss.”

Ziff worried that the gunman would be downstairs, ready to shoot EMTs coming to his rescue, so Ziff told them to stage two miles away. He was awarded a commendation for his coolness under duress.

A month later, Ziff was back on the job, and not long after, the second pivotal moment occurred.

“It was the first time I went on a structure fire where a child had died,” Ziff said.

The intense heat from the fire had charred the child’s body beyond recognition.

“The parents were outside yelling at us to bring their child out,” Ziff said. “It was a no-win situation. We couldn’t bring the child out. What do you tell people in that situation?”

Even now, Ziff looks back on the death of that child as a turning point in his career.

“I developed a real hate for fire,” Ziff said. “I wanted to go out and kill it wherever I found it.”

Dealing with duress

Ziff’s experiences, combined with the fact he has been hospitalized five times for injuries suffered on the job and has suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, gave him a unique perspective on the duress of fire fighting and led to some interesting assignments.

He had special fire/ rescue duty and was assigned to President Ronald Regan and his wife Nancy.

He was the lead instructor with the National Terrorism Preparedness Institute for 11 years.

“I started with them (NTPI) before 9/11,” Ziff said. “Situations like the initial bombing of the World Trade Center and the Oklahoma City bombing created an awareness that emergency responders were not prepared for that type of situation.”

Ziff helped prepare new training so that emergency responders could deal with new and different situations.

“The training we had was organized around the concept of prevention, response and mitigation,” Ziff said. “This was not counter terrorism, but emergency response. How do you deal with mass casualty or mass decontamination situations? As institutions had situations, they would call the agency and ask for particular classes.”

The courses are important because the situations are so challenging.

“Situations like 9/11 or Oklahoma City have incredibly difficult psychological ramifications to deal with, not just for the families, but the first responders,” Ziff said. “In situations like that, there are so many people dead that you can’t do anything for, that can really cut deep.”

Sage guidance

Ziff has taken everything he has learned over the past three-and-a-half decades and is using it to train the fire fighters of the future at PCC.

His goal is to prepare them technically to handle the job, and to prepare them mentally to deal with the stresses that come with being a fire fighter.

“There are certain situations, it’s inevitable, there is going to be stress,” Ziff said. “Your life is at risk, a child is at risk, a fellow fire fighter or emergency responder goes down. It’s predictable.

“You’re going to have some serious psychological ramifications. That needs to be addressed quickly, before it festers like a wound.”

Ziff said the hardest part is dealing with the stress after the fire is put out, or the incident has been resolved.

“You have to process what you went through,” Ziff said. “I still have nightmares from that child over 30 years ago. Lots of situations like that, that fire fighters go through . . . are with you the rest of your life.

“Physically, injuries heal. After the shooting, a month later I was on duty, fully functional. Psychologically, you may have to deal with that incident for decades.”

Ziff wants his students to be confident in their ability to battle a fire, but still have that tension for safety.

“Don’t wait for somebody to tell you to be safe,” Ziff said. “You need to be safe.”

Stress reducer

One of the ways Ziff deals with stress is through nature photography.

He has become adept at photographing wildlife in Colorado.

“When I’m out in the mountains, experiencing nature, it’s really a great stress reducer,” Ziff said.

However, there’s a limit to how much tranquility Ziff is willing to endure. His favorite animals to photograph?

“I tend to prefer dangerous animals: rattle snakes, black widow spiders, birds of prey,” Ziff said.

Preparing students

Ziff worked for several different fire departments over his career. He regularly consults with the fire chiefs in Pueblo and Pueblo West on what to include in his courses, and to how best prepare his students.

“Pueblo West and the City of Pueblo, those fire fighters are sharp,” Ziff said. “I’ve done ride arounds with fire departments, hundreds of fire departments. Pueblo and Pueblo West are top of the line. I’m very impressed with them. From my perspective, they are way, way up there.”

Ziff’s goal at PCC is to produce competent, confident students, who have an empathy for victims and an awareness of their own limitations, so they can handle the pressures of the job. Students who are prepared enough to work at fire departments like those in Pueblo and Pueblo West.

“Most of my students are people who want to help other people,” Ziff said. “They are willing to put themselves at risk. That’s pretty much the personality of firefighters. They are always willing to go the extra distance, putting themselves at risk to help people.”

Copyright 2018 The Pueblo Chieftain

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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