Book excerpt: ‘Firefighter Zen: A Field Guide to Thriving in Tough Times’

Learn the Zen-like techniques to stay grounded while navigating danger and comforting others

Early on a Tuesday evening in November 1986, my wife, Laurie, and I became volunteer firefighters. After six months of training, we were voted into the Hondo Volunteer Fire Department and given permission to respond to calls.

We went home, congratulated each other, had dinner, and began doing the dishes. At about 9:30 PM, we suddenly heard this horrendous, high-pitched shriek.

“Holy shit, what was that?” Laurie yelled. We looked at each other and then noticed that both of our fire department pagers — which we would carry with us 24/7 for the next several decades, and which would largely run our lives — were vibrating on the kitchen counter. An unintelligible voice came over the radio: “Hondo — crackle, crackle — car fire — crackle, crackle.”

“Wait,” Laurie exclaimed. “They’re going to page us at night?”

We momentarily put aside Laurie’s critical insight as we tried to remember what we were supposed to do. Completely adrenalized — a car on fire! — I asked, “What should I wear? Who’s going to drive? Where are the dogs?”

We managed to settle down, get the dogs inside the house, and get ourselves out of it. We jumped into our old and cranky Nissan Pathfinder and headed toward our first call.

This was our induction into the vocation and, to Laurie’s dismay, the realization that, yes, they were going to page us at night. There would be many such nights, followed by countless exhausted mornings and coffee-laden hours at our day jobs. Yet as soon as we opened the door that first night and headed toward the fire, we knew these physical inconveniences weren’t going to matter. We were hooked. While a little concerned by the disruption we had invited into our lives, we were both thrilled and sobered by the understanding that our worldview was about to irrevocably change.

Our story of joining a volunteer fire department is one shared all over the country. There are approximately 1.2 million firefighters in the United States. Of that number, 70 percent are volunteers. Of the sixty firefighter deaths in 2017, thirty-two were volunteers. Although major cities have paid firefighters (we call them “career” firefighters), medium-sized cities, small towns, suburbs, and rural America are served by largely volunteer or combined (career and volunteer) departments. The volunteer fire department dates back to the first fire brigade founded by none other than Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia in 1736.

Joining a volunteer fire department was not my idea. Laurie and I were in our thirties and settled in our ways. Also, I was never one of those kids who watched the seventies’ TV show Emergency! and dreamed about being a firefighter or an EMT. The idea was Laurie’s. She worked at a conference center outside of Santa Fe. One summer evening, a guest fell and broke her ankle. There was no one trained in first aid to help, and Laurie had to struggle to treat the woman. She vowed never to let that happen again. She signed up and completed a six-month emergency medical technician course. At the end of the course, the instructor asked if she would be interested in joining a fire department — just to keep her skills fresh. She thought it was a great idea and came home and tried to sell me on it. I resisted. I couldn’t see myself with an ax breaking down doors, and I had a “thing” about blood and gore. But she persisted and we went to that first meeting. I almost fainted when the gathered firefighters passed around a picture of a deceased car-crash victim with a broken neck — but Laurie was intrigued. Seeing my discomfort, she whispered in my ear, “Maybe you can just learn how to run the engines...”

And that is how we became firefighters. Laurie dove in enthusiastically. I was more reluctant. But after a few months, I became as excited as she was.

Before we joined the department, Laurie and I had led insular lives. Unlike most firefighters, we’d both begun our adulthoods as dancers in the cloistered world of ballet. By its nature, ballet is an all-consuming enterprise. Dancers are extremely focused, seeing only the studio, the theater, and their career paths. When we retired from dance, we jumped right into jobs, but we still saw life as if we were wearing blinders. Our sense of what was going on in our town and even in our neighborhood was at best an abstraction, brought to us by the news or occasional gossip at work.

Was there suffering? Were tragedies happening? Of course. But because they didn’t have an immediate impact on our lives, they were rarely on our radar. For most of our twenties and thirties, we thought that life was, at worst, benign.

I would argue that most of us are similarly afflicted. I don’t mean this pejoratively. We grapple with work and family, with hardly a moment to think, reflect, or observe. We live in the most politically charged times since the sixties. The oxygen is daily sucked out of the room by the next crisis and the next. All this swirls around us and distracts us from what the writer H. G. Wells called the “primary and elemental necessities” of life.

For Laurie and me, becoming volunteer firefighters brought those elemental and primal aspects of living sharply into focus. From the night we received that first page, we were tossed into a world of fires, car crashes, and cardiac arrests. With words that were never adequate, we were asked to comfort individuals who were suffering, who’d just lost someone or were themselves terrified of dying. We saw that “calls” — the firefighter’s term for someone in trouble — don’t discriminate. It doesn’t matter how busy you might be or how successful or beloved you are. A banker, thinking of the day’s schedule, falls to the floor in a Starbucks, clutching his chest. A couple holds each other outside their double-wide as it explodes in flame. A teenage son lies in the bathtub facedown in the water, half his body blue, heroin paraphernalia on the sink. A homeless man curls lifeless in a snowdrift, his arm defiantly sticking out of the melting snow. Firefighting quickly tossed and scrambled our assumptions about living — and about our own lives. Our notions of security became more tenuous. We had to come to grips with the fact that suffering and pain were all around us. We had to accept the emerging truth: The one promise the universe makes and keeps is that we will experience tragedy.

The inevitability of disaster soon becomes part of the firefighter’s DNA. But somehow most firefighters I know are resolutely good-humored and composed; it’s hard to fluster a good firefighter. We have learned how to thrive here, in this universe of uncertain futures and certain tragedy.

We learn to thrive because of the calamity and heartbreak we see almost every day; not, as people often think, despite what we experience. Laurie and I, and most volunteer firefighters we know, have stumbled on a heart-saving secret. When we accept the reality that society is just a veneer that masks the fundamental drumbeats of an immutable and uncaring universe, our path to fulfillment is straight toward calamity. When we serve, when we take care of strangers, when we work in community to save a community, we feel most alive. This isn’t an adrenaline rush, although there’s that, too; it’s mostly in the shift from “me-centered” to “other-centered” that we find meaning and even joy.

You don’t have to be a firefighter to find that fulfillment. You just have to see the world through a firefighter’s eyes.

About the Author

Hersch Wilson is a 30-year veteran volunteer firefighter-EMT with the Hondo Fire Department in Santa Fe County, New Mexico. He also writes a monthly column on dogs for the Santa Fe New Mexican. Learn more at

"Firefighter Zen"
New World Library
Copyright © 2020 by Hersch Wilson

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