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This article originally appeared in Issue 15 of our magazine.
Here in Ocala in the middle of Florida, far from the coastal breezes and surrounded by pine forests, we’re sweating even in the shade. Behind us a four-story concrete building burns from the inside out. Black smoke pours out of every door and window. It stings our eyes even though we turn our backs to it.
No, we’re not witness to a wildfire that’s engulfed a nearby office building. This is an intentional inferno, set at the Florida State Fire College as part of the Florida Smoke Diver School. This intense one-week course teaches firefighters to survive and thrive in situations that would incapacitate some of their less-experienced counterparts. It’s meant for the best of the best, sort of like the SWAT academy of firefighting — which might explain why only one in four candidates passes the course.
Fortunately for us, we were given an all-access pass to the program, observing what it takes to become an elite firefighter and finding out how to apply these training concepts in civilian life. Whether you’re a prepper looking to reinforce your skills or just a concerned reader hoping to learn more about surviving a fire in another hot summer season, you’ll no doubt find some valuable — and perhaps life-saving — information in these pages.
Standing near the burning bunker, we wait for one of the Smoke Diver instructors, Lieutenant Chad Belger of the Gainesville Fire Rescue Department. He engineered the rebirth of the Florida Smoke Diver School in 2012, almost a decade after it was forced to shut down due a candidate’s accidental death in 1994. Originally structured primarily as a beat-the-sh*t-out-of-you weeklong physical challenge, Belger revamped the program to include mental training, as well. He focused on stress indoctrination training, getting firefighters to calm down and think straight even as their surroundings collapsed around them.
Belger knew the training was hazardous. But firefighters were dying in real-world fires as well, in part for lack of experience with life-threatening fires. Improved fire-resistant construction meant that large blazes were being encountered less often than they used to be. “That was our biggest argument,” Belger says. “Training is dangerous, but the industry standard for special operations is training at a high enough level where you may get hurt. That’s the nature of the beast. That intensity is necessary to perform in the real world the way that we’re expected to.”
Four years after its reboot, the Florida Smoke Diver program is one of the most elite in the country. Other states including Georgia and Texas have begun similar programs, although the Texas school remains shuttered due to its own accidental training death in 2012.
After spending some time with him and the other Smoke Diver instructors, we learned the following top five lessons that can be applied to anyone’s prep work:
“We teach that it’s all about self-awareness,” Chad says. “Be aware of your abilities and limitations, but also be aware that those are just perceptions. You are capable of so much more if you can condition your brain to allow your body to do what it’s capable of.”
In other words, there’s a perceived limit to what you can do. This limit does not exist. You can do more than you think. The Smoke Divers want there to be a muscle memory response, based on past experience with similar situations through their own brand of stress inoculation training. As a result of this constant training the body should be able to say to itself, “OK, we’ve been here before, and we came out alright. We didn’t die. So maybe everybody should just calm down, and we’ll figure a way out of this.”
“Whether or not that’s actually the case is irrelevant,” Chad says. “You might end up being OK and you might not. The point is that you keep fighting, believing that you will be able to find a way out — or in if you need to get in.”
How does the school teach this? “We create situations where people are at the limits of their physical and mental ability,” Belger says. “They need to be fully pegged. We get you to the limit, but then ask you to perform basic firefighter tasks. Perform a rescue, crawl through a stud wall, the types of things that in a non-stress environment any firefighter in the country could do without a problem.
“In these situations the fine motor skill tasks become much more difficult. So throughout the class you learn — you either learn or you fail — how to make yourself slow down, control your breathing, fall back on your muscle memory training, and not let that instinctual freak-out reaction take over. Otherwise you don’t pass the class and need to come back when you’re more prepared.”
Prepper’s Application: While you won’t have your own fire school to practice running in and out of burning buildings, you can do your own training to push yourself to, and beyond, your limits. Strap on your go-bag and go for a run. Time yourself, then improve. And read our Health column every issue for more ways to improve your physical fitness.
Firefighters who fail to control their breathing let their heart rates skyrocket out of control. Some who have gone “into the black” have been found inside closets and pantries, literally trying to claw their way through a wall mindlessly. If you lose control of your breathing, you’ll lose your senses — figuratively and literally. A threat (real or perceived) can spark shallow or excessive breathing, which in turn can bring on tunnel vision, auditory exclusion, and lack of fine motor control, among many other negative physiological effects.
“We reinforce breathing from the start,” Belger says of the Smoke Diver School. “We make people aware of their finite available oxygen, which is what they’re wearing on their back. On every drill we make them monitor their consumption. Then we have benchmark evolutions where you must improve your air consumption throughout the class to make yourself more aware. Otherwise it’s a critical failure. That’s the crux of the whole class.”
Even Belger — who routinely works in buildings where it’s 450 degrees F at the floor and 850 degrees at the ceiling — has his moments when he needs to center himself. “Myself, I got more overheated than I ever have in my life on one of our training burns,” he says. “I thought to myself, ‘I can’t go back in there or I’m going to pass out.’ But then I used Dave Grossman’s breathing techniques from his book On Combat [see next lesson]. I was able to become self-conscious of my breathing, and then bring myself back in and finish the job.”
Prepper’s Application: When you focus on your breathing, you can slow it down along with your heart rate. This prevents the negative physiological effects (tunnel vision, hyperventilation, etc.), increases your self-awareness, and allows you to make sound decisions under duress. Practice this the next time you’re working out or in a situation where you might otherwise panic, e.g. you hear a bump in the night or almost get into a car accident.
Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman’s landmark book is referenced by police, military, and self-defense instructors throughout the United States. It’s also a foundation for lessons that the Florida Smoke Diver School teaches every day. The book discusses at length the critical skills that warriors need to survive in any situation, from an always-on mindset and mastery of breathing and heart rate, to continuing on with the mission even after being shot or wounded.
Don’t think you’re a warrior just because you’re a civilian? As Grossman says in his book, “If you are in a war, you are a warrior. Is there a war on drugs? Is there a war on crime? Is there a war against terrorism? Are you confronting and containing aggression as a peace officer at home, a peacekeeper in some distant land, or a warrior combating terrorism around the world? Or perhaps you have chosen to be a martial arts practitioner or an armed citizen, seeking to defend yourself or your loved ones in their hour of need? Are there people who wake up every morning determined to send you back to your family in a box? Then you are in a war and you are a warrior.”
Depending on your perspective and your awareness of world events, the warrior mindset taught by Grossman could be more applicable to civilians than you would first think.
“From that book,” Belger says, “I learned the phrase that biology is not destiny. Just because I was born a certain way or that I have this amount of proclivities and weaknesses, doesn’t mean I need to accept that. I can transform myself in almost limitless ways.”
How did that apply to him? “I was never a good athlete growing up. I was an overweight kid. I had asthma. My whole family had health problems. But by now I feel like I’ve changed my biology to the point where I am a high-performing athlete, at least as much as an amateur athlete can get. I didn’t realize it until I read the book that I became aware of the process and was able to do that much more.”
Prepper’s Application: Without mental fortitude, all of your physical fitness and prep work can be for naught. Read books like On Combat to prepare the oft-neglected aspect of survivalism: mindset.
Smoke Divers train to refill their air bottles even in complete darkness, even when they are out of air, and even when they have been out of air for the last 60 seconds. They want there to be muscle memory so that their hands and bodies move without conscious thought or input. Because no matter how experienced you are, your heart will beat faster in stressful situations. Increased heart rate can lead to loss of fine motor skills, so if your body doesn’t know how to respond by instinct then it may not respond the right way.
“Every day in Smoke Diver School, we start with an hour of gear check and physical training with gear,” Belger says. “It’s all about knowing your equipment, all of its capabilities and your capabilities in that equipment. The first part of our day is just putting our gear on as fast as we can, properly, so that we can get in or out of a bad situation. You need to know that everything is in its proper place ready to go to protect you.”
Above: The first step to being prepared for a blazing inferno or inevitable disaster? High-intensity training with the clothes and equipment you’ll most likely wear when SHTF.
Prepper’s Application: Imagine if smoke’s filled your house or you’re in the middle of the woods at night time without a flashlight. It’s not enough to know what’s in your bug-out bag (BOB). You have to know where everything is in your BOB and practice getting to it — even without sight. Practice accessing items from your pack with your eyes closed or while in the dark. If you own a firearm, practice malfunction drills with dummy rounds while your eyes are closed.
“We train at max effort,” Belger says. “But in a real scenario you always want to leave a reserve — 75/25 is a good rule of thumb for physical exertion. But I like to account for mental awareness as well. For that I like to do 80/10/10. That means 80 percent for your task, 10 percent for an escape plan or a Plan B for when sh*t hits the fan, and 10 percent for your breathing.”
One Smoke Diver graduate told us about performing a search-and-rescue scenario at the end of the day, when he was already tapped out. He searched a smoke-choked building on hands and knees to find a weighted mannequin “victim,” conveniently with no legs and just one arm, which made it harder to carry. Hoisting it over his shoulders, the Smoke Diver to-be stumbled out of the building with five minutes of air remaining. He then triumphantly set the victim down at the feet of his instructors. “That was real good,” they told him. “But there’s another victim in there.”
Most people stop when their bodies are done. Smoke Divers stop when the job is done.
“That ability only comes through repeated training,” Belger says. “You have to know what 100 percent feels like to be able to scale it down. Obviously you can’t quantify 75 percent effort, but you have to know what your maximum ability is to be able to say to yourself, ‘OK, I’m redlining right now, and I need to bring it back a little bit. Otherwise I’m going to burn myself out.’
“We leave a reserve because you know never know when you’re going to need that last 25 percent, whether to rescue yourself or your buddy. And if you’re tapped out then who is going to come rescue you? Who are we supposed to call?”
Prepper’s Application: This can be applied on two levels. The first would mean always having reserves in your preps. For example, pack extra food in your BOB or map multiple evacuation routes in your emergency plan. The second would mean having reserves in your physical fitness and mindset (see lessons 1 and 3).
It’s important to learn and practice exiting the home drills with your family at least once a year. Remember, a fire may block your main exit through the front or back door. So practice getting out of a window, too. Here are some general guidelines:
Crawl to Exit: If a fire alarm goes off or you smell smoke, crawl on the floor toward the nearest door. After checking it for heat, open it. If the way is clear, keep crawling and go for it.
Out the Window: If not, close the door and exit out a window.
Shelter by the Window: If you can’t crawl out the door or climb out the window (maybe you’re in a tall building), stay near a window. Firefighters will use a Vent-Enter-Search (VES) protocol, and the windows are the first places they’ll check. Use duct tape or towels to seal the bottom of a door and air vents. Open but don’t break the window, in case smoke enters the room from outside the building. Use a flashlight or light-colored cloth to signal firefighters.
Rendezvous: Make a plan with your family for where you’ll meet (e.g. the big oak tree in the backyard). This will prevent frantic and unnecessary searches.
The lessons Belger has learned (and teaches) can do more than just save firefighters’ lives. They can help each one of us who plan on facing our own personal Armageddon-style scenario one day.
“The lessons we teach at the Smoke Diver School are applicable to civilians because it teaches about preparedness,” he says. “Whether you’re a gun guy or a get-the-hell-out-of-Dodge guy, it comes down to knowing yourself and your equipment. And it comes down to making sure your family knows how to use the equipment.
“At some time, everyone reaches the point where they have to make a decision: Am I going to keep pushing or am I going to give up?”
Belger already knows his answer. What’s yours?
Andrew Schrader is certified as a structures specialist responder by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and is assigned to the State of Florida’s Urban Search and Rescue Task Force. He is the founder of Recon Response Engineering LLC, a professional training outfit that specializes in educating the general public, first responders, and construction companies on how to respond to (and prevent) building collapse caused by natural or man-made disasters. www.reconresponse.com