It takes experience to Master it…..

A few nights ago, I was watching one of my favorite movies in a series of movies: Red Dragon. You may be familiar with them, the fictional tales of the infamous Dr. Hannibal Lector, Will Graham and Clarice Starling. Most of you may familier with “Silence of the Lambs”, but there are several books and movies that go along with that particular movie in the series. During the movie, a certain scene stood out to me. It’s funny how a single line, or event witnessed, during the normal course of any day can suddenly bring about an idea completely out of the ball park of whats actually going on at the moment! The scene was when the main character Will Graham is visiting Dr. Lector in a bunker with an oval track in it for which he is allowed to “exercise”. The exercise consists of being chained and shackled to the inner part of the circle and Lector is allowed to Walk. The history between the two is a rough one, as it is Will who caught and arrested Lector, but not before Lector brings Will to the precipice of death with a Stiletto knife. Investigator Graham is trying to get Hannibal to assist him in catching another serial killer, who’s first killing went astray from what he had planned. He had to murder a man in a sudden rush of panic, because the man caught the killer in his home. Upon Grahams critique of the sloppy, ill planned murder, Lector asks Will if he himself has “never felt a sudden rush of panic?” after which, Lector lunges at Will. Due to his shackles and chain, Lector is stopped short, like a dog at the end of its rope mere inches away from Graham. Will retreats a bit, as fear grasped him. “Yeah, that’s the fear we talked about” Lector reply’s, amused at his own display, “It takes experience to master it.”

Our own Lt. Lemon talked about fear recently, and our need to master it in order to do our Job. And to accept it, use it, rather than brag on our t-shirts about how we have none of it. The line in the movie got my wheels turning. He is completely right. Hannibals little quote there, got me thinking on fear, and the experience it takes to master it. What kind of experience must we have, before we become masters of it? How much experience does it take? I thought about it for a few days before trying to write about it. I wondered to myself, If I am a master of my own fear. How would I know it? Are their different kinds of fear? I don’t know, as I’ve said before, I wont pretend to have all the answers, but lets talk about it together. I’ll give you some of my thoughts on it, and please be my guest and let me know what you think on the subject.

Fear in theory, from a firefighter perspective, should start on day 1. There should be a little bit, not much, when you walk into the firehouse. It should be mixed with anticipation, and maybe a little anxiety. “Will these guys accept me?” “will I get a call today?” “What the hell have I gotten myself into?” There should be a bit of all this when the pager, or bell, goes off for the first time. There should most certainly be a pang of fear crawl up your spine when you turn onto the street of your first fire, and see the tale tale glow coming from down the way, or you see the column of thick black smoke rising above the tree tops. Of course there are all sorts of emotions and feelings going on during these times, but intermixed in all these is Fear. Un-knowing to you, you have been learning to master it from the first time you ever saw a fire truck. You saw them going down the road, on the way to the un-known. Or maybe you met them at the station, patiently waiting on what’s to come today…. maybe tomorrow…. maybe thirty seconds from now. You saw them, knowing or learning about what they do, what they may be called upon to do at a moments notice and see no fear. Fire fighters. If you told someone off the street ” hey, sometime today  your going to come face to mask with death and its going to be up to you to conquer his grip. The grip may be light today, it might be tight. But today, you will meet him.” Now assuming you’re a prophet, and not some lunatic grabbing people on the street and speaking on imminent demise and death, and this person believed you…. The fear would stay with them all day. Hell it would stay with them all week! But here these people are, goofing off, reading a book, cooking supper…. here they are standing with no fear in the face of what could happen today. It truly does inspire a bit of confidence. Now here you are, standing with them. They relieve your fear with a joke, or maybe a first day pep-talk telling you what they expect from you. All these little things, have already started helping you tame that fear. Standing along with these guys…. they have been doing this for a long time…..its gonna be ok. Little things, bit by bit by itty bitty bit start to tame that fear.

Training, from day one, assists you in the mastery of fear. Learning to tie certain knots, advancing hose lines, live burns. Riding down narrow streets at a speed you never even thought about doing in a CAR, none the less a 45,000 pound big red truck, But your driver is doing it with the ease of a casual sunday stroll. EMT training, looking at pictures and hearing stories of what others have done and experienced, and all other sorts of training all get you prepared for whats next. Slowly, one call at a time, seeing things, smelling and hearing things all in their own way help you in your quest of fear mastery. Whether your realizing it or not, it all builds up over time. Some fire fighters are lucky, they volunteer in a busy district, or get assigned a hopping territory right from the get-go. Some never see no more than a couple hundred calls a year, and there are those in-between who work their way into the busy areas. Each call, every job, every ride to the grocery store (if you get that damn nose out of your smart phone and pay attention), can teach you more and more about your job, your territory. Every aspect of what we do can be a learning moment if you let it. The more you learn, train, and pay attention to details, the more you master that fear.

Everyone is different though. The mastery of one fear for a firefighter may take many more experiences (or less) for another firefighter to achieve the same level of mastery. You will come to learn it on your own, and pay attention! Fear is something that’s more than an object to learn to go over like an obstacle in a confidence course. That fear, although mastered it may be, will always be there. It’s what heightens your awareness when you step out on a four lane highway. It touches you on the shoulder when you feel an amount of heat in a room that you’ve never felt before. It reminds you it is there when you ride a suicide attempt. It heightens your senses, and will melt away the iron in your fists when it is necessary. Un-checked, fear will lead to panic and a complete shut-down of all but your fight or flight instincts. A mastery of it, and it becomes a friend. A colleague that whispers in your ear when its time to go, when its time to fight, when its time to pay attention to what you’re doing. A two-edged sword that will cut the snot out of you when you swing it the wrong way, and the snot out of whom ever is in its path.

What do you think? I’m sure someone out there is ready to stand up and say, Hey Cap! I aint skeered! No fires gonna get me! Well, Brother, that’s good. Just don’t be on my line when the smoke hits the floor, and the little bit of light in the room left goes out. Because if the shiver of fear dont crawl up your back and whisper in your ear…. then consider the fire your own Dr. Lector. He’s there in the dark. His stiletto is sharp….. and  waiting.

“So you were hurt not by a fault in your perception, or your instincts…. But because you failed to act on them until it was too late…..”

Dr. Hannibal Lector

Ta,Ta for now….. Stay safe, and ride hard

Capt. Chaos

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10 responses to “It takes experience to Master it…..”

  1. Firefighthero (Bill Hoke) says :

    Excellent story…………very true. I was the young firefighter once…now just a crusty old curmudgeon, and my first “hell bent” fire was in a basement of a commercial structure. I went into that deep dark abyss with three others. Not much smoke but you could feel the heat and it was coming after us. Making our way into another part of the basement the heat and smoke did just what you referred to it got dark and then the light went away. The decision to leave was made and two of our four made it to the stairs and went up. I started to get a little panicky but remembered to “follow the hose” out except when I came to the section that had been looped. Then I was lost. The heat and smoke was getting real bad. I’m swinging widely to find the stairway and the temptation to take off my mask to see better was forefront in my mind. But then I remembered one thing my Father, now deceased and a volunteer long before I was a paid firefighter, told me “whatever you do NEVER take your mask off”. That saved my life, that calmed my freer if even for a moment. I found the stairs stood my ground and waited for the last person to make it to the stairs so we could leave together.

    Now 37 years I am still doing what I love……but fearing what I know can take me in an instant.

    Your article should be mandatory reading for all young guys. It is available on a smart phone isn’t it?


    • captainchaos01 says :

      Thanks for the comment and story brother. It is indeed available on the smart phone! LOL. As always, thanks for reading, im glad you enjoyed it! 30+ years on the job, there is experience there you can not read in a book, or buy with any amount of money. Be sure to share any stories like this one with your crews, especially the youngest. You never know when words of advice or wisdom will stick, but like with your story about your fathers words, they may just be remembered in the moment they need it the most! Thanks again Brother!


  2. Ross Escobedo says :

    I have been in the fire service for 14.5 years. I have heard that whisper several times while working. Its not a good feeling, I have thrown up in my mask! There were times that I thought that I wasn’t going home. I still get a the “scared” feeling just as I break into the thick black smoke at the doorway; not knowing what’s on the other side. As I sound the floor and have my tools for battle, I keep that in the back of my mind – The Voice!!! The “VOICE” that makes me aware of my surroundings, my crew, my objective. I say my prayers at night and let my Grandfather know that I am scared, but help me do my job. Hoka-hey!!!!!! ( ITS A GOOD DAY TO DIE)


    • captainchaos01 says :

      Hey brother, we all hear voices from time to time! I just make sure I only listen to the important ones! Ha! Thanks for reading and commenting! Be safe, and have a good day!


    • Firefighthero (Bill Hoke) says :

      Ross, did you hear the “Voice” last Saturday? I saw the “Devil” and he looked like he was after YOU! Glad things turned out like they did.


  3. Jason Jefferies says :

    Good stuff Chaos! This line “if you get that damn nose out of your smart phone and pay attention” brought me to applause, even if it was not the core of the message. Those little hiptop computers are ruining the fire service.


    • captainchaos01 says :

      Thanks brother! I think their ruining tons of stuff, from work to general social interaction all together. I try to police myself when it comes to the usage at work. With the exception of sunday’s and holidays, i leave the phone in my locker. I know of a captain that demands it of his crew, that phones stay in the bedroom until after 5 pm. Im glad you enjoyed the read! Stay safe!


  4. Lloyd Messer says :

    Great story! I must say fear is a great motivator in the fire service. I have not been in the fire service very long going on 6 years, all of it volunteer. I have heard the stories of knocking on the devils doors and playing with the “dragon’s breath”. But until one experiences true fear then no amount of stories or education is really going to prepare a person for what is about to happen. I have learn that no one person on the planet is invincible you are just on borrowed time; how you use that time is up to the person.
    This month has brought a whole new perspective on how I deal with fear. I thought I was prepared but turns out I wasn’t. I heard the whisper I felt my gut and mind telling “no something isn’t right”. But I chose to ignore it and it almost got me along with my friends killed. I truly thought that day I had lost a friend, a brother but luckily he was prepared, his training kicked in and was able to get out safely. Granted there is a much longer story to what happened that day, but it is to be told another day. I learned that day what fear was. I learned that fear is one of the most indispensable tools in the firefighters tool box that he or she needs to use it on every call that WILL occur. Keep up the good and GOD BLESS!


    • captainchaos01 says :

      Indeed, we’ve all either been there, or will go there. Its inevitable, and only a matter of time. The true question is what your going to do once it hits you and you make it through the experience. There will he those that quit. Those are the ones that probably never should have been there in the first place. Some will be ruined for life. Those may stay in the service, but will become “green line jockeys” as the term goes, or will assume the role of “safety” at every incident. They will be the ones who will find a way not to go interior at all costs, even go to extremes of being what I call “yard breathers” sucking down air as they get set up, stretch lines, ladder sides…. by the time they DO go interior, they will be out in about 2 mins saying their out of air! Pay attention on your next few runs and see if you got any yard breathers! You may just be surprised! Finally you get to the true masters of fear, and will take the experience, learn from it and use it for the rest of their lives. Take it brother, and use it! Your right, it cant be something you learn reading a book, or hearing stories. It is a lesson that comes from hard , teeth grinding times. Sometimes, unfortunatly the lesson comes at a steep price, with the loss of a fellow brother, or even citizen. Even in those, the hardest times we will experience, there is a lesson to be taken away…. usually. One of the toughest fears I personally have found a hard time dealing with is that you can do it all right, make every decision flawlessly, and still get caught. We do what we do because we love it. Firefighting is one of humanities true, pure goods in the world. People putting their lives up as collateral, for other people to have a chance…. and our fear is as you say, another tool. Possibly our best one that, under control, bring us back home in the morning. Thanks for the comment brother! Stay safe!


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