That defining moment will one day come for you
By Ric Jorge
“One day, in retrospect, the years of struggle will strike you as the most beautiful.”–Freud
The Gap is the place where we separate life from death, good from evil, honesty from dishonesty. The Gap is not an easy place to stand; sometimes it requires great sacrifice and/or making unpopular decisions. You may find yourself standing alone in the Gap, or with great support, but it is seldom an easy place to make a stand. The Gap can be an internal or external battle, but it’s typically a battle worth having.
Witness the sheep quietly going about their lives, never seeing the dangers until it’s too late. The shepherd stands in the Gap for the sheep, protecting them as they go about their business ignorant of the wolf that stalks them.
What makes the shepherd so courageous that he would take on a wolf? Is it his courage, his staff, the sheepdog, or the wages he’s paid? What if the shepherd didn’t have a dog, or the wolf were to kill the dog? The shepherd would be left with only a staff to stand in the Gap. Wouldn’t it make more sense to sacrifice one sheep to save the flock rather than endanger yourself for something that doesn’t even understand what the shepherd is willing to sacrifice?
Firefighting is not much different. Our staff and sheepdog are different, but our job is similar, as is the way the job is arguably viewed by the public (sheeple). Looking below the surface, you’ll notice there are significant differences between the shepherd who would sacrifice himself and the one who would sacrifice a sheep just as there is a difference between being a firefighter or someone who works for a fire department.
If you got into this profession for the accolades, recognition, and ego stroke, maybe sacrificing one sheep makes sense to you, but you’re not a firefighter–you’re someone who works for a fire department. I would challenge your motives and question my desire to trust you with my life or others. If you got into this profession to be of service, to give back to your community, to protect the unknown faces that make up our citizenship, to be willing to sacrifice your ego to become a master of your craft, then you are a firefighter–you are the shepherd who will fight the wolf with his staff or his bare hands to protect his sheep. To stand in the Gap requires a price, and this profession will leave you with scars–some visible, some invisible.
Some will say courage is required to do this job. What, then, when fear, the assassin of courage, shows up? The answer in short is faith (belief); to overcome fear, you must have faith. Faith gives way to courage; courage gives way to bravery. To develop this requires specific training in lessons of the mind and physical techniques blended together. In the shepherd’s family, these traits are handed down from one generation to the other.
As an example of developing these traits, let’s take search and rescue. The action taken to search for occupants in complete visibility or lights-out conditions, in a burning building–a building with multiple floors, entering through a door or through a window, enduring heat or extreme cold is an example of learning your discipline under degrees of difficulty. It is straightforward and consistent until the roof collapses or the floor gives way. Up to that point, you may not have realized the price for standing in the Gap, as the shepherd only realized it when faced with a hungry wolf. This is the point that all of your training, your experience, and your natural ability will come into play. Your greatest tool available to you is your mind. If you have not prepared your mind for where your body may have to go, you are leaving the public, your department, your family, and yourself exposed to incomplete training that may lead to unnecessary failure.
Training the mind requires more than realistic scenarios. It starts with recognizing that all of us are different. We have different life experiences. We are different genders, shapes, sizes, mentalities, IQs, language skills, abilities, and capabilities. If you think training should be placed into a nice neat box and everyone should be able to perform the same, you’re wrong. Train your people to their ability, and then push them a little more. Learn to coach when necessary, stop confusing testing with training, quit placing your expectations on people, and learn to witness their abilities and inabilities so you can better evaluate their strengths and weaknesses. Then learn how to improve them and prepare them to stand in the Gap. The mental game is everything; without it all those cool tools are worthless under duress.
“Amateurs train with the hardware, professionals train on the software.”
–Lt. Col. D. Grossman
What’s your thought processing when you get trapped? Have you practiced being pinned down in multiple positions? Have you trained mimicking your Mayday and self-extricating techniques with a broken arm or leg or disorientation? How have your instructors helped you to develop your thought processing?
What’s your reaction like? Only you know the secrets you keep because you’re afraid to look foolish. Would you rather gamble to look good but be dead or maimed? Don’t forget you are letting down the public, your family, and ultimately yourself rather than face a challenge that would make you more resilient. Your internal dialogue, what you’re telling yourself, is your biggest stumbling block or your biggest asset. Learning to overcome negative self-talk is a prerequisite to standing in the Gap. How have you trusted your instructors to help you with this? Do you trust your instructors? Can your instructors help you with this?
Training is great if it is reasonable. What makes it reasonable? Retention–the goal of any training session is retention. If your training is too complex for your audience, or they have not been properly prepared, retention drops. The opposite is true if training is too simple: Retention drops because you’ll lose people’s interest. Instructors must know their audience and deliver appropriately.
Rookies are not the same as new recruits; new recruits may come from another department and be further advanced than rookies. Rookies should not be trained the way you would train Special Ops, and vice versa. The goal of training is to somehow capture the students’ attention with the subject matter and create an association they will relate to so they can retain this information for future referencing. That information then needs to be repeated diligently for it to develop into a default. It takes time to develop an appropriate response. Training develops our default response. Training is the substitute for lack of experience. Training must have realistic goal setting. We train to play; we don’t play to train. If you want your people to “get into the job,” you have to get their heads into the job.
When the worst happens, you must be prepared to stand in the Gap; this career demands it. How do you do this if your thoughts are racing and you’re emotionally red-lined? All of the preceding techniques are requisite for arousal control to be approached. A situation, an image, and thought processing will illicit the emotions that cause arousal levels to escalate or deescalate. Sometimes the thoughts or a situation occurs so rapidly you are left with an unfamiliar scenario or behavior. At this point, psychophysical techniques such as breathing will help to regulate the hormonal response associated with the experience in question and allow for rational thought to occurs rather than allow the sympathetic nervous system to take charge.
We train our entire lives for moments in time that will define our ability to stand in the Gap. That defining moment will one day come for you on the job. It will come off the job, in retirement, or all of the above. This process transcends the fire service. Are you prepared to stand in the Gap?
RIC JORGE has been a firefighter for Palm Beach County (FL) Fire Rescue since 1992. He has authored chapters in several books and coauthored Developing Firefighter Resilience (Fire Engineering). Having been assigned to trucks and engines, he has taught many of the disciplines. He retired in 2017 to pursue his passion of training. He also works at a rehab counseling center for first responders struggling with drugs, alcohol, and post-traumatic stress disorder.