“Survival is the celebration of choosing life over death. We know we’re going to die. We all die. But survival is saying: perhaps not today.”
-Laurence Gonzales, Deep Survival
If you’re a firefighter and haven’t read Deep Survival, do yourself, your crew, and your family a favor and devour that book right now.
In this gripping book, author Laurence Gonzales breaks down what separates the survivors from the victims in all types of situations. He writes about mountain climbing disasters, shipwrecks, and plane crashes, but the traits that allow the few to survive while the many perish apply just as much to the firefighter lost in a burning building or battling cancer or post-traumatic stress.
Fair warning: This isn’t so much a book review as it is the thoughts, and feelings I’ve had and the connections I’ve made during and after reading this book. I highly recommend you go and read this book for yourself.
Survival is a state of mind, a choice to be made.
Attitude is everything, as I’m sure you’ve heard. Having an attitude that is open, receptive, and humble will contribute greatly to your chances of survival in a given situation. Gonzales speaks specifically the “beginner’s mind.” This concept has its roots in Zen Buddhism and amounts to the ability to approach everything with an open, eager mind lacking preconceptions, even (maybe especially) when you’re at an advanced level. You can’t train the basics too much, and keeping a beginner’s mind will keep you sharp and perceptive. Maintaining a sharp beginner’s mind will also help thwart complacency.
”A closed attitude, an attitude that says, ‘I already know,’ may cause you to miss important information.”
Make a decision. Right or wrong, make a decision.
This advice was given to me as I started to train to ride-up in the battalion chief role with my department. While this may seem simple on the surface, the ability to be decisive cannot be understated. Both in the realm of survival and simply being a leader, you cannot afford to be indecisive.
Indecision leads to inaction, and in a survival situation, inaction leads to death.
Everything we do and see gets filed away in our minds, every call, every fire, every bad situation, every training exercise. While these memories may not be at the forefront of our thoughts, may not be readily accessible, they are in the background building our intuition, amounting to that gut feeling we all know so well.
”When a decision to act must be made instantly, it is made through a system of emotional bookmarks. The emotional system reacts to circumstances, finds bookmarks that flag similar experiences in your
past and your response to them, and allows you to recall the feelings, good or bad, of the outcomes of your actions. Those gut feelings give you an instant reading on how to behave.”
In Extreme Ownership, Jocko Willink talks about “Prioritize and Execute.” In this method of decision making, he suggests to, “relax, look around, and make a call.” I’ve also heard this as “observe, orient, decide, act.” Whatever you call it, it all amounts to the same thing: you must be able to calmly take in your situation, compile all the physical cues and your intuitions, make a decision, and act on that decision. To that I’ll add immediately begin evaluating your decision and be prepared to change course if need be, which brings us to our next point:
Be prepared to let go of any and all plans.
There is nothing wrong with making plans, in fact, plans are often necessary. But, as Gonzales points out, being too tied to those plans can and has gotten people killed. When you’re too devoted to a plan you begin to ignore signs, discarding observations as trivial, however:
”Trivial events begin to shape an accident long before it happens.”
What may seem trivial can literally cost you your life, or the lives of one of your firefighters. Ignoring the sudden change in wind direction because it doesn’t fit with your plan to attack from the Alpha side can cost lives. Nothing is trivial and being too committed to a single plan can have detrimental, even fatal, results.
Sidebar: It’s Situational
There’s a reason my answer to a lot of questions raised by my guys in training is, “it’s situational.” We train to be prepared, to learn new skills or hone basic skills to a razor edge, we train to have a basic script of what to do in a given situation. We don’t train to form specific plans for every incident we could encounter. In our line of work you could never plan for each and every situation and approaching training as a means to that end is dangerous. So, I say, “it’s situational.” Every decision you make will depend on the situation at hand. Training should be: “here’s a tool for your proverbial toolbox, read the situation and decide on the appropriate tactic/skill, but be ready to change that plan at a moment’s notice.”
A Survivor’s Mind
”The first lesson is to remain calm, not to panic.”
Cultivating a calm, clear mind is a topic Gonzales comes back to time and time again in his book. He makes dozens of points regarding keeping calm, mentally reframing the situation, keeping a Positive Mental Attitude, etc. He stresses that a key component in a survivor is the ability to control their emotions and their thoughts; focus on the task at hand and don’t let your emotions make your decisions.
You must remain present and mindful of the situation, make a flexible plan broken down into simple tasks and focus on those tasks. Use anger, fear, and the love you feel for your family and your friends to keep you grounded and motivated. Never give up, that equals certain death.
“Helping someone else is the best way to ensure your own survival. It takes you out of yourself. It helps you to rise above your fears. Now you’re a rescuer, not a victim.”
We signed up for this job to help others, to have a career that brings with it an inherent purpose. We already have this built-in. In a survival situation such as Mayday you may have gotten separated from your crew, you may totally on your own. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t people who need your help. The other firefighters outside will need help loading hose, your kid will need help with their homework, your spouse will need help with work around the house. Let this fuel you, keep you from giving in to the exhaustion, the fear, the desperation. Let your purpose be your drive to survive.
Some other really interesting points the author hits on through the book are the importance of a sense of humor, specifically gallows humor (being able to laugh at particularly dark subjects), the benefits of prayer in a survival situation (even if you’re not religious), seeing through the tragedy to appreciate the beauty around you, and stone-cold determination.
I could go on about these topics and this book but I’d rather you take what I’ve shared here, read the book, and form your own thoughts, feelings, and connections. Let the lessons in this book guide you in your daily practices as Gonzales points out, survival isn’t about only what you do in the moment, its how you live your life every day.
”The outcome of a survival situation depends largely on your mental, emotional, and physical condition and activities.”
Daily activities like journaling, practicing mindfulness, and practicing that beginner’s state of mind and positive mental attitude, and focusing on your physical fitness may be what keeps you hanging on those last few minutes before the RIC finds you and helps you walk out instead of having to carry you out.