By Rene’-Luis Colina
I can recall certain moments in my career that were shaped definitively by experience, and then so many that are only remembered by the stories of others. I guess many in the industry can say the same, or most likely not ever say a word. The moments most vivid now after all these years have become my personal haunt, a constant movie playing each day that I cannot turn off. In a profession that is admired and glorified by the perception of strength, courage, and might, I found myself in darkness. It is a common for firefighters to operate in the dark. We are taught to do just about everything by touch. We do our best work without ever truly knowing what is in front us. We are skilled at escaping darkness into the safety of the light. What happens when you cannot find that light anymore, when each path taken only leads you deeper, and you have no will left to even call a Mayday for survival?
About 21 years ago I found myself crawling on my knees and having the sound of static music blazing in my ears. The only sense afforded to me at that time was touch. I was training to effectively complete a right-hand search through a two-story building. I was moving blindly, trying to locate a dummy and drag it out. It was my first experience in total darkness. That would later become the norm, at least if I planned on being a firefighter. I knew I had to complete this assignment without failure and that turning back was not an option. I could hear some other recruits in front of me being yelled at for pulling their masks, and the tone of anger from the instructors. Could I be next? I inched my way through a maze of plywood and two-by-fours. Would I break under the stress of being in darkness?
Then it happened. I located a small gap of space through the noise, confusion, and disappointment, and I found a hardened piece of plastic in front of me. I was quickly rejuvenated, moving quickly to find my exit and retrieve my prize for success, light! I was freed from my blackout mask and greeted with encouragement, but what I remember the most was that I was no longer in the dark. What a breath I took and how amazing it felt to see again. I can look back through the years and recall times where that feeling was relived over and over. I would pass into darkness in the hopes of saving a life, and that passage would eventually bring me back to the light. It is hard for some to even imagine finding peace in a world like this, filled with such uncertainty, yet I always knew the light was near.
I guess I never really noticed how the light began to fade over the years and the darkness became increasingly difficult to escape. I have always said that I show up to work to save lives, and those not prepared to do the same should go home. We understand the risks that are inherent in the profession and willingly choose to step up without hesitation, pushing limits beyond training, and tucking away any potential fears. Never exposing vulnerability to anyone, even those members close to us the thoughts that plague our minds. Would it show weakness, or incompetence, or, even worse, the loss of your identity? It becomes another element stored in the darkness that slowly continues to eliminate the light.
I completely understand that the profession I chose is different than any other. It becomes who we are and how we are seen by others. I do not get to be a firefighter and go home to be the average “Joe Neighbor,” my identity is a firefighter. Society finds it easier to refer to you as the “firefighter” than by your first name, and it encompasses everything. My choice of profession cannot be turned off. I cannot remove a costume, and I cannot leave my job at a storage unit to be picked up on Monday. Please do not misunderstand me: I am honored to have this identity, I have earned this identity, but my light is still dimming. I am not filling this with war stories of horrific events or claims of acronyms that have been discussed in our industry. It is just a search for understanding.
It has become the search for my life, because I have now seen how the darkness has crossed past the fire and into every thought. I have witnessed the diminishing of light, no longer just at end of the hallway, but within my life. How is it that a person who is perceived to be strong, aggressive, and intelligent cannot control who they are? Why has it become so difficult, in a career filled with amazing moments of triumph, to remember anything but horror? The darkness, apparently without knowing, has over time decided to become my identity. The majority in this industry will have events that change their lives forever. That is the nature of the business, unfortunately. But, when you can no longer complete your search, when you can no longer find the dummy, when the light of success no longer shines…what do you do?
I am by no means a mental health specialist–maybe just a little mental–but I have been struggling with this dilemma quietly. I would never share my deepest thoughts or concerns for fear of being committed or even worse, tarnishing my reputation. Crazy? My reputation? I would have chosen to potentially lose everything for fear of weakness; that must be the dumbest thing I could ever say. Unfortunately, it was my reality. We are trained to do everything in a group, a pair, a team, a shift, or a family, yet we hide our darkness deep until it one day completely snuffs our light out entirely. It seemed easier at moments to destroy my family, friendships, and myself rather than to call a Mayday for help.
It has taken some time to realize where I was at fault and understand how to gain some control for myself. To understand that the darkness need only be temporary in any circumstance, and that if I found that light back in the day, then I can find it again. I was searching in the dark alone. I was doing everything my training had taught me not to do. I was following paths of clouded emotions, demanding situations, and hardship without a partner and expecting to get out. I had to accept defeat within my thoughts to gain freedom from the darkness. It took the strength of another unwilling to believe my words, to see through the façade, to help me understand that I could only get out with help.
I truly believe I have been blessed to share in a profession where so many amazing people that have spent their lives sacrificing for others. It is a struggle that unfortunately many are fighting in our industry today, and there are many resources available. In many ways this has made me stronger as an officer, father, husband, and friend–to know I was doing it wrong. I guess I am one of the lucky ones also; she fought to search with me until the light.
Lieutenant Rene’-Luis Colina III (RL) has been active in the fire service for over 20 years with the City of Apopka (FL) Fire Department. Lieutenant Colina is certified as a State Life Safety Officer, State Life Safety Inspector, State Fire Instructor, State Live Fire Instructor, FOII, Public Information Officer, State Paramedic, and an Adjunct Professor of EMS for the State College System of Florida. He has been awarded multiple unit citations, individual performance citations, and the Exemplary Service Award.