I like to volunteer. I don’t know why I enjoy it so much, but I do. For about three and a half years, I was a volunteer for the Victim Support Unit (VSU), a role that stretched me and helped me develop my sense of empathy and sympathy. I learned so much. I had several profound experiences while helping individuals and families, including one instance where I became empathic. I was assisting family members of a recently-deceased woman to view the body in the morgue and their grief and anguish was so strong, I actually felt their emotions. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that experience.
For reasons I won’t go into, I resigned from the VSU. I gave myself a short hiatus and then decided to join the volunteer fire department. I had been thinking about joining for about a year, but didn’t feel I had the time. So, I’ve been going to the fire hall on Monday nights since mid-September, starting the training. It’s been extremely overwhelming. Not since I started VSU training have I felt this out-of-my-element. I don’t know anything about fire fighting. I don’t know most of the people there, I don’t know where anything goes, I don’t know which truck is which, I don’t know how to use any of the equipment… you get the idea. Nevertheless, I think it’s good for me to try something completely new from time to time and really stretch myself. This week, I certainly did that when I jumped into a hole in the ice to rescue a drowning person!
You see, the fire department is the workhorse of the emergency services. When there’s heavy or hard work to be done, the fire department is the one who responds. It’s not just about fire; we attend vehicle accident scenes and cut cars or trucks open to get to injured patients. We can be called on by the paramedics to help lift a particularly large patient. We are the ones who will rescue people who’ve gone through thin ice into the freezing water below, which is what we practiced on Monday.
The first time I heard about this, I was taken aback (but of course, I played it cool). :) Go into the water to rescue the person?!? Isn’t this what my parents said never to do? Hand them a pole, throw them a rope, but don’t go in there with them or you’re likely to end up a frozen victim yourself! Yes, that’s what they said. And this is very good advice for regular people, but with the help of dry suits, members of the fire department will readily slip into the freezing abyss to get a rope around a half-drowned person. The victim will either be hysterical — which I can only imagine makes roping the person harder than wrangling an alligator — or hypothermic — which makes getting a rope around them easier, but you must do it with the utmost speed and gentleness (two things that don’t usually go together). Of course, you always encourage the person to pull themselves out first, but if they had been able to do that, don’t you think they would have? And you can always try throwing him/her a rope, but ultimately you have to be prepared to get in the water with them so others on shore can pull you both out.
When Monday night rolled around, I can’t deny I was a bit nervous. I can swim, I’m not afraid of water (I did two solo paddling trips, remember 1. 2.), but when it’s -12 C, it just seems so wrong! That water is so cold! I was able to pin down what was making me so antsy: I was afraid of the cold. One by one, every volunteer firefighter who hadn’t done it before shlupped into the dry suits, got tethered to a safety line and went in the water. I was on the pulling crew, which was easier than I thought and we pulled some people out a little too fast at first. Some of them looked like they were having fun, but I was still nervous! Until I got the suit on, then my whole frame of mind changed: I had a job to do, so I’d better do it. And I did! I rescued my partner and she rescued me, and then she rescued me again using a pool-noodle device (which was a pain in the a**) and then we co-rescued our Fire Chief in a slightly different scenario. The ice was about 8 inches thick so he’d cut a hole in it with a chainsaw, meaning the scenario of “thin ice” wasn’t entirely accurate, but it was sure good training. I was surprised how warm it was in the suits. At -12 C, the water is definitely warmer than the air and it was pretty comfy, except that I had a leak at my left wrist, where the mitt/glove joined the suit, and my whole arm was soaked in frigid water in about a minute. But you know, it wasn’t that bad! I more than “survived” — it was fun, and with a great team of people behind me, I can now rescue a person in icy water! How about that!
It’s interesting how something that seems so bad or scary usually turns out to be much better/easier/not scary once you actually do it. Our imagination is a powerful thing and we can get ourselves into quite a knot if we let it run wild. There’s such a great feeling of accomplishment from doing something difficult (that’s why I like That One Damned Phone Call), tricky or just plain scary. In many ways, you aren’t really living unless you’re facing your fears. You can’t keep avoiding them and when you face them and see that they aren’t as bad as you thought, you’re empowered!
Avoidance is never the answer for anything. Face what you’re afraid of, just a little at first if that’s all you can do. If you feel anxious, nervous, short of breath or uneasy and don’t know why, sit down quietly and take a few deep breaths. Just breathe. And as you do, if something bubbles up and you think that might be what you’re so afraid of, let it be. Don’t judge yourself. Just accept it, accept yourself, and when you’re feeling positive, do something to face that fear. Don’t wait until you feel courageous — the courage comes after the action starts. Take a small step, keep breathing, and you’ll be able to face your fear! And when you do, celebrate and bask in the feeling of accomplishment that follows! (I’ve got a whole chapter on fear in my almost-complete book.)
Back at the firehall, we’re going to practice cutting cars and trucks open on Saturday. I’m really looking forward to this — I think it will be tons of fun and (don’t tell anyone) it’s half the reason I joined the fire department — to cut cars open! I can’t wait! And it’s the most fun in training because there’s no injured person awaiting medical care. I might not enjoy the real thing quite as much, but I’m sure going to have a hoot on Saturday! :)
(Sorry I don’t have any pictures of the training. There was one person taking pictures, so if I can get my hands on a good one, I’ll add it later. This is pretty much what we looked like, except it was dark when we did it:)