“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”
–Charles Dickens, David Copperfield
Since I began Triple F, I have received many personal messages from women all over the country who are struggling in the fire service. They are beset by obstacles from within and without. Often, the most painful ones come from co-workers who range from the unmotivated and unsupportive to downright mean and hostile. Then there are internal obstacles of doubt and insecurity (the most dangerous of all). Years go by and it doesn’t always feel like it’s getting easier. Some of us may begin to wonder if it’s worth it. Does it really have to be this hard?
So, I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I’ve had my share of impediments on the department. My third shift out of the academy, I was riding on a Rescue truck (transport unit). My Captain barely said two words to me all day other than informing me it was against policy to talk politics in the station. I was not long out of grad school and unaccustomed to self-censure. A horrible quality for a rookie! Late that night we had a ripping house fire (my first) and all of a sudden my Captain took me under his wing, guiding me through everything from breath control, S&R, roof work, and ventilation.
Nine years later, I vividly remember standing on the roof, looking down over the neighborhood lit up like a movie set by a battalion of trucks while steam slowly drifted up around me. It was surreal. I could not believe I was being paid to do this job. Suddenly it was more clear to me than it had ever been through the hiring process or the academy: I wanted to fight fire. (Thank you Captain Francis)
I was hooked on fire, but not everyone was hooked on me. I entered the department a 120 pound paramedic and in the beginning most people assumed I would work on a Rescue. (MDFR is a combined Fire/Ems dept). I, however, wanted to get on an Engine fast as I could. Not an easy task for a seniority challenged light weight. I’ve been blocked from trucks, ignored in training, and told to “get the F____ out.” Eventually, I wondered why I was putting myself through this when I could go into another field that might value me more. One where I could look clean and pretty and sleep through the night. Where people were polite and gentle. But, I wanted to fight fire and save people, and it’s hard to do that in stilettos.
About five years into the job, a Captain that had moved me from his truck before a drill and later blocked me from holding a spot, asked me to bid a permanent position on his Ladder. I was extremely flattered but I couldn’t help thinking: five years. It only took me five years of working in the same battalion with the same people on the same shift to prove myself. Of course, skeptics still exist, and life didn’t suddenly get easier. Obstacles continue to arise.
“I, for one, have an idea that he will never bring this journey off.”
The Odyssey of Homer
I am a student of mythology and lately I’ve been reading about the Hero’s Journey where I came across the concept of the Threshold Guardian. Suddenly it all made perfect sense. The fire service is full of threshold guardians. Ablaze with them, in fact.
Joseph Campbell mapped out a universal pattern of the Hero’s Journey that exists in stories from all over the world. A potential hero wants something precious (the princess, ring, victory, home) and must struggle valiantly in order to obtain it and fulfill his destiny (Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Beowulf, The Odyssey). The hitch is, not just anyone is worthy of becoming a hero. Tests must be passed and trials overcome. Storm troopers evaded. Trolls killed. Dragons survived. Most importantly, fear and self-doubt must be mastered. It is a dual journey: inner and outer, that applies to all aspects of our lives.
Stories contain life principles embedded within them and one major life principle is this: If you want something very badly there will be multiple obstacles that stand in your way. Campbell calls these obstacles Threshold Guardians. Their purpose is to prove (and forge) the hero’s worth by testing her resolve as she pursues her goal. If she lacks adequate courage and determination then she is not allowed forward.
“All heroes encounter obstacles on the road to adventure. At each gateway to a new world there are powerful guardians at the threshold, placed to keep the unworthy from entering. They present a menacing face to the hero, but if properly understood, they can be overcome, bypassed, or even turned into allies.” Does this not perfectly sum up the fire department?
Threshold guardians have many faces. Some are ugly and frightening, meant to scare us into turning back like the weather beaten old timer glaring at you over his cigar. Others are beautiful and seductive, designed to distract us or lure us from our goal toward pleasure or comfort instead. It helps to recognize them for what they are, but it is not always so clear. They can be sneaky little bastards.
The fire department has threshold guardians as daunting as any Cyclops or Siren. They may be hostile or negative crew members, unmotivated officers, illness, injury, poor equipment, lack of training, endangered budgets, or family issues. (Children are some of the fiercest of all!). Or they may be as innocent as the recliner and a movie. Sometimes the obstacles feel overwhelming and we may wonder how we can possibly vanquish them. The hero wonders this same thing. It is absolutely universal to sometimes question whether you can survive all that life is hurling at you, but if you want to be the hero of your own life and realize your dreams, you must forge on.
Threshold guardians can be overcome in a number of ways; they can be physically defeated in battle or circumnavigated through cunning and stealth. Some must simply be endured and survived. Either way, the trick is to come through them stronger, scarred but unbroken, with a hard earned wisdom of one’s own capabilities.
Women in the fire service are entering an exclusive world that has been closed to us for centuries. The stakes are high. We face death, injury, scorn, and, sometimes exclusion or exile. It is not a world for the faint hearted, but it is a world worth fighting for. We will constantly run into walls and we will have two choices: quit or continue. It is that simple. That doesn’t mean we beat ourselves to death. It’s important to know when we must re-gather the troops, heal and regenerate to fight another day. Often there are setbacks and reassessments are necessary. But, whatever happens, in order to enter this rare and protected world, a heavy price must be paid. You must earn it. You must almost die for it (physically or psychologically (ego)). You must be tried and tested and prove that you are worthy to be here. It will hurt a lot. You will suffer. There is no way around it. For some in this field, it may come easy, but for many of us it will be hard. It takes time. It will probably take years.
In order to become fully realized human beings, we must face the obstacles that arise in our life like a never ending string of waves and learn to surf the pain. The goal is not to be a hero to society or our departments, but to be the hero of our own lives. In our case, the prize is not a ring, or prince, or paycheck; it is the self-respect that comes with true knowledge of our abilities regardless of what anybody else has to say. It is to know that have we have faced the fire and earned the right to enter the kingdom.
It is to know that we are firefighters.
1) Vogler, Christopher, "The Writer's Journey; Mythic Structure for Writers 3rd ed.," Michael Wiese Prods. 1998.