I was 18 years old, lost in a burning building, and blind. As I fumbled through the flames, it occurred to me: Maybe I shouldn’t have volunteered for this.
It was my senior year of high school, and I was coming to the tail end of my 90 hours of volunteer firefighter training in my home-town of Waco, Texas. The final test before completing the training was called the Fire Maze, an exercise in which the veteran firefighters would put us newbies through our first, real-life, full-scale fire.
Weighed down with flame-repellent suits, oxygen tanks, and dread, we were led to an empty farm silo called the Smoke Tank. The firefighters opened the metal door to reveal a giant room filled with an intricate wooden maze, with walls ten feet high and combustibles like old tires and pieces of wood littering the floor.
Before we even had time to take in the whole scene, the veteran firefighters put torches to the wood, and the entire maze lit up in flames. The Texas sun had already heated the day to nearly 100 degrees, but that seemed cool compared to the furnace blast now racing through the building.
We picked up our masks, only to find that they had been completely covered in black paint—to replicate how hard it is to see in a real fire, our instructors said. I looked out at the growing blaze in front of us; this “fake” fire seemed plenty real to me. I put on my mask. I couldn’t see a thing.
The firefighters yelled our instructions over the roar of the flames:
- There is a dummy trapped in the middle of the maze.
- Your goal is to rescue him as quickly as possible. In a real fire in a strange home, it is exceedingly easy to get lost and disoriented. The only way to avoid this is to keep in constant contact with the wall.
- You will enter the building in teams of two, holding on to each other, so one of you can hold onto the wall, while the other sweeps the floor for the dummy.
- This task would be nearly impossible alone, but working with a partner, it can be done fairly easily.
The firefighters assured us that the whole task should take only seven to ten minutes, but that we had a whole hour of oxygen in our tanks just in case. An alarm bell would alert us when we were down to our final five minutes of air, giving us plenty of time to exit safely.
Finally, the firefighters reminded us again of our human lifelines—our partners. In a fire, it might seem counterintuitive to hold on to your teammate, but that was the best way of getting out alive.
The veterans flung open the door, and we crawled headfirst into the inferno. I started gulping oxygen, and I could feel my partner grip my jacket at the wrist and hear him breathing just as hard.
We started timidly feeling our way through the smoke. He went first, keeping a hand on the wall, while I held onto him with one hand and used the other to feel along the floor for the dummy.
About ten minutes into the maze, everything seemed to be going fine, except for the fact that we couldn’t see and felt moments away from heat stroke. But we still hadn’t found the dummy.
That’s when I heard the bell. Surrounded by flames and smoke, blind, and crawling around on my knees, I tried to make sense of what was happening. Why was the alarm on my partner’s air tank going off? There had to be at least 45 minutes of oxygen left, yet the bell meant he only had five minutes of air to go. Must be some kind of mistake, I thought.
Then my bell went off. Veteran firefighters would have remained calm. We panicked. Our ability to reason vanished. I unthinkingly let go of my partner, and then he let go of the wall, which meant the worst:
We were both alone, and we had both lost the way back out. Disoriented and frightened, we flailed blindly in opposite directions, groping the air and calling each other’s name. But I couldn’t hear him over the roar of the fire and was sure he couldn’t hear me either. As the minutes ticked by, I began to feel increasingly helpless and scared. I crawled around frantically, sure that my oxygen supply was rapidly running out.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, I felt the heat recede as a pair of strong arms dragged me out of the maze into safety. As I gulped in the fresh air, the veterans revealed several things.
First, everything that had gone wrong had been part of the training; the bells on the tanks were set to go off early, raising the false alarm that we were out of air.
Second, when the firefighters went in after us, they had found me crawling around in circles at a dead end, and my partner 20 feet away, equally lost and doing more or less the same.
Third, there had been no dummy. As the firefighters like to say at the end of training every year: The only dummies in the fire are the newbies. And they always have to be saved.
At the time, I remember thinking that this was a particularly cruel trick. But years later, I’m impressed at how memorably the Fire Maze training instilled in me the lesson …that when we encounter an unexpected challenge or threat, the only way to save ourselves is to hold on tight to the people around us and not let go.
…In an ideal world, of course, it shouldn’t take a crisis to bring this point home, especially given the wealth of evidence showing that our relationships are the greatest predictor of both happiness and high performance. So even though our basic instincts might tell us to turn inward, positive psychology knows better.
When caught in a fire, holding on to others is the best chance we have for successfully finding our way out of the maze. And in everyday life, both at work and at home, our social support can prove the difference between succumbing to the cult of the average and achieving our fullest potential.
Monday, 14 May 2018
Here is an excerpt from a book, I recently read: from Harvard University.
I found this particular excerpt very useful and relevant to life. A simple learning when we go through different type of crisis.
It sent chills to my spine as I visualised this situation. Last few months I have been working on engaging into an authentic dialogue and remaining engaged especially during difficult confrontations. The experiment has been very fruitful. I used to normally check out, disengage and get into a shell in such situations. It has been a newly found freedom in expressing myself by and remaining connected instead of disconnection.
May this story remind you to stay engaged in your tough situations.