Learning to be at Peace

I work in an extremely stressful environment. A dispatch center is full of chaos and each call could be a matter of life and death. We handle all calls for emergency services; Fire, law, and EMS. And we dispatch for the City, small towns, Sheriff’s Office, city fire, and EMS (county fire has someone sitting in the dispatch center as well, and we have to transfer some calls over to the Highway Patrol).

It’s a fast paced, balls-to-the-walls environment at times. It’s loud with the phones ringing, people shouting out information, and (sometimes) people yelling for assistance.

I work with some strong individuals, people with powerful personalities. Where I am comfortable being the unknown face behind the scenes, they are more outspoken, louder, and sometimes overpowering. Part of it is that some of them have been there for years. They are used to the stress of 12 hour shifts, multiple calls holding, and officers who are extra vigilant with their excessive traffic stops.

There are times where I struggle. When I feel overwhelmed. Where it seems like I am just trying to keep my head above water.

But even in those moments, I know I am at peace. I’ve learned to manage my emotions. To keep a level head, to know that even though I may feel off balance, I am still present. I’ve been told that I seem at peace, calm, almost meditative at times. I don’t get angry at calls that come in. I try not to raise my voice at my coworkers. Even when I really want to call them out on their stupidity.

It took me years before I discovered how to be at peace with myself.

Many years ago, a friend of mine was reading a memoir from a monk in a monastery who had devoted his life to prayer. In one conversation, my friend shared that the monk lived in a constant state of prayer. He prayed at all times, especially while he worked. He lived his life and devoted everything he did, big or small to the glory of God. I found it interesting that his biggest struggle was devoted prayer time at the monastery, when all the monks set aside a time of day to devote themselves to prayer.

This monk questioned why he needed to devote a certain time of the day to prayer when every action he made in his life was a constant prayer to God.

Ever since hearing about this monk, I have tried to follow his example of prayer.

This has gotten me through some rough times. It has helped me to manage the stress of disaster response with AmeriCorps, long days on the trail doing conservation work, and the chaos of the dispatch office.

I meditate. I pray. I do breathing exercises. I make sure I recenter myself and constantly rediscover why I do what I do.

And through all this, I am at peace with myself. At peace with the chaos that surrounds me. And at peace with my relationship with God.

My faith is the only reason why I haven’t collapsed under the stress of this life. And prayer is the only strength that has gotten me through some of the darkest nights. When I learned to be still before my God, El Roi, the God who sees me, I learned that everything I do is a form of worship, a praise to the Father above.

I won’t say that the stress ever goes away. Neither does the fear. The worry. The constant questions if I’ve done everything that I can. All of that still remains. They will never go away, but I’ve made my peace with them.


Don’t Wait To Die

Yesterday, after working a 12 hour shift over at the dispatch office, I had the opportunity to participate in an armed intruder / active shooter training put together for county employees. Technically, it was part of my required training so I was required to be there, but I learned a lot from the presentation and scenarios.

I want to take a moment to share some thoughts, some notes, and some reflections from those four hours of training.

The normalcy bias is a mental state people enter when facing a disaster. It causes people to underestimate both the possibility of a disaster and its possible effects. The assumption that is made is that since a disaster never has occurred, it never will occur. This bias can result in the inability to cope with a disaster once it occurs. People will have difficulties reacting to something they have not ever experienced or prepared for. (Definition was taken from Wikipedia.)

The normalcy bias is the fatal thinking that since it (whatever ‘it’ may be) has never happened here, why do we need to prepare for it. Most of us (myself included) have never experienced an active shooter or armed intruder incident. But most of us have also never experienced a structure fire (though a lot more common).

Did you know that the last student fatality caused by a fire was back in 1958? When Our Lady of the Angels School in Chicago caught fire on Monday 1 December 1958, 92 students and 3 nuns lost their lives.

We learned in school and still teach our students what to do in the event of a fire. We hold fire drills every month to train for and reinforce our response so that in the event of a fire, we know what to do. We know to evacuate. And we take this with us for the rest of our lives.

But what do we teach our kids about active shooters? Do we teach our students what to do in the event of an armed intruder?

When I was in High School all those years ago, we had a single active shooter drill where we went into lock down. But other than lock the doors, we did nothing else. I learned to hide behind a locked door. And pray that the bullets never found us.

Four years and only a single active shooter drill? But yet we held fire drills every month. I knew more about what I needed to do in the event of a tornado than what to do in the event of an armed intruder! And I lived in northern Virginia where the likelihood of a tornado was slim to none.

Seven years ago, a student walked into Norris Hall on the campus of Virginia Tech and opened fire. The result was five faculty and 27 students were killed. Another 16 were injured by gunfire and six from jumping out of second floor windows to escape.

During the training, we were shown the statistics of each classroom: Room 206, where the first shots were fired, had 13 students and a single professor. The shooting left nine dead and two wounded. The next room across the hall, Room 207, five dead and six wounded. In the next, Room 204, Professor Liviu Libreschu, a Holocaust Survivor, held the door closed while his students escaped through the second floor window. He and a student were killed by shots fired through the door. The next, Room 211, where a professor and student barricaded the door, the armed intruder was still able to gain entry and kill 11, wounding another six. The individual went back to Room 207 to find it barricaded, but managed to injure another two students who held the door closed. They were not able to get into Room 205 after the students and professor inside barricaded the door with a large table, nobody inside was wounded. The assailant shot and killed himself 10-11 min after the first round was fired, just as officers got to the second floor of the building.

The national average response time for law enforcement personnel is 5-6 minutes. Police arrived at Norris Hall within three minutes of receiving the first 911 call, but were slowed upon entering the building as the armed intruder had chained the three main entrances shut.

NOTE: Like the instructors in the training, I refuse to share the name of any armed intruder. They are not the ones to be remembered. The heroes that day are the professors and students who took action to save those around them, like Professor Libreschu, Instructor Jocelyn Couture-Nowak and student Henry Lee, Katelyn Carney and Derek O’Dell, and substitute professor Haiyan Cheng, along with countless other unnamed heroes that day. The ones to be remembered are the lives that were lost.

I had friends who were attending Virginia Tech. I still remember that day as a Freshman at Anderson University, returning from observing at one of the local high schools.

Five to six minutes. Think about that for a second.

While you wait for law enforcement to arrive, who takes care of you?

According the the statistics that they shared in the training, between 2000 and 2013, 486 students were killed by armed intruders in the United States.

In a study of 160 armed intruder incidents in that time, only six of those were carried out by female assailants (3.8%). 40% ended with the intruder taking their own life. 60% ended within the first five to six minutes, before or upon the arrival of the first law enforcement personnel on scene. 10% of those incidents occurred in government buildings. 24% occurred in schools. 46% occurred in areas of commerce (stores, malls, etc.).

Laws will not prevent these incidents. Safe spaces where weapons are not allowed will not prevent someone from entering with the intent to kill. If someone is intent on hurting others, stricter gun control will not prevent someone from walking in with a knife. Or a bomb.

Yes, a majority of these individuals are mentally ill. Just look at the interview with John Ladue, a teenager who was prevented from carrying out his plan by someone who called in suspicious activity (they saw him carrying several bags and backpacks into a self-storage facility multiple times and called 911).

“I think I’m just really mentally ill. And no ones noticed and I’ve been trying to hide it.” When speaking about his plans to kill his parents and sister; “They did nothing wrong.”

These events will happen. And will continue to happen. And unless we prepare for them, they will just continue to get worse, because each one is learning from the last and trying to outdo the others. Trying to make a name for themselves.

Vigilance can prevent these events before they ever happen. If you see something, say something. If you hear something, you could be the one who saves others.

One of the instructors stated that “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun.” We’ve seen plenty of youtube videos of individuals with concealed weapons preventing or ending events within moments, long before law enforcement gets on scene. But I’m going to be honest, I do not have the training or qualifications to be carrying around a weapon. But there are things that every citizen is capable of.

The acronym that they taught us is A.L.I.C.E.; Alert. Lockdown. Inform. Counter. Evacuate. It’s a non-linear reminder that everyone can use to prepare themselves. Remember those five to six minutes it takes for law enforcement to respond? You are the one that responds. You are the one to take care of yourself.

When we say Alert, it means to be aware of what is around you. In the world of Wildland Firefighting and Disaster Response, it is referred to as Situational Awareness. Be vigilant in knowing where you are at all times. Where your exits are. Who is around you. What hazards are in your immediate area.

We, as a society, have a tendency to be oblivious to what is going on around us. We have our heads buried in our smart phones. We become focused on our objectives and we forget to watch where we are walking. Challenge yourself to be more aware of what is going on around you. In your life. Your immediate area. Your community. Where you work. Where you live. And when you see something out of place, make note of it. It could save your life.

We have been taught to go into lockdown when an event happens. If you are unable to escape, make yourself a harder target. Deny the intruder access by locking doors, barricading yourself in. Not just hiding, but denying access to yourself.

Realize that walls do not always stop bullets. Random bullets will still kill. Yesterday, we were taught that this should be a last resort. But once you do, do NOT go out. Wait until law enforcement personnel evacuate you.

When an incident takes place, we have a duty to inform others around us. Don’t just run, but help others. Let them know what is happening. Call 911. Remember where you are and give as much information as you can. Let them guide you. Answer their questions to the best of your ability.

But remember, when an incident takes place, sometimes the phone lines will fail. The cell towers may become overloaded. Jammed. Or busy. Once you get out, text your family. Let people know where you are.

As a last resort, if all else fails, counter the intruder. Commit to fighting for your life and the lives of those around you. Improvise. Anything around you is capable of being used as a weapon. Throw stuff. Disarm them. Incapacitate them. Hold them down. Two or three people can easily over power a single intruder, even if they do have a weapon. Secure the weapon. Throw it in a trash can, out a window, get it away from the intruder. And don’t give up.

But if you remember anything, run. Escape. Evacuate. Leave everything behind and run. If you freeze, you are an easier target. Only 2% of armed intruder incidents have more than a single assailant, so run the other way.

Fun fact that they shared with us: almost 70% of shots fired by law enforcement personnel are misses. The reason for this is due to movement. A mobile target is harder to hit. Active shooters are looking for that body count, so they will focus on the easier targets. The best thing to do is to run. Make yourself a harder target.

Run. Hide. Fight.

When faced with danger, you must do something.

The instructors shared a quote with us that has stuck with me. One of the students who survived the Virginia Tech shootings was interviewed afterwards and she recalled that when the shooting started, she realized that she was just waiting for her turn. She had given up and was waiting to die.

We will never know how we will react until something happens. And then we will see how well all of our training and preparation comes back to us. But the first thing that needs to change, our instructors reminded us, is our mindsets. Act. Do something. Anything is better than nothing. Don’t wait to die. Tell yourself that it is not your time to die.

Have a plan for yourself and those who you are responsible for.

In the moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.
– Theodore Roosevelt

If your community has an Active Shooter / Armed Assailant training, I highly suggest you take it (check with your local emergency management director or law enforcement office). If you are a teacher or a supervisor, I believe this training should be required. As well as emergency medical training.

Be prepared. Knowledge is power. And having a plan will save lives.

And as a final note, I want to give a shout out to the men and women who respond, from the law enforcement personnel to the emergency medical services, dispatchers to firefighters. Their service saves lives. If you get the chance, thank them for their service.

When Superheroes Come to Life

There are two things I want to speak about. Two things that are opposites, but connected none the less.  Both have to do with ordinary people stepping up to do extraordinary things. The first is a reflection of what I saw this past weekend at SC Comicon (my first Con), while the second are some thoughts on how ordinary people can step up to change the world.

STK_8157 (edited)

I spent the past weekend up in Greenville reconnecting with old friends from college and hanging out with new friends I’ve met on this journey. I spent hours wandering through the aisles talking to vendors and artists. I saw heroes of all types.

We are captivated by the stories shared of men who rose above others through force and power. Those who can bend steel and wield the weapons of gods. We stand in awe of stories of warriors who rise again after each death, who wear suits of armor that give them the strength of a hundred men. The tales we know the worlds of Marvel and DC Comics through movies and images that occupy our culture, and those lesser known (but just as vibrant and beautiful) stories of Valiant Comics and those of lesser known origins.

These are the superheroes that rise above all men, and struggle with one it means to still be human. To live beyond their years and yet, still live. To find purpose.

I think we love comics because they reveal what we desire, to rise up and stand where so many have fallen. I believe that each of us want that opportunity to be something more than human.

We cannot all be immortal warriors. We cannot all have the power of flight. Or possess ancient powers that make us like gods. Or armor. Or skills in fighting. Or even the will to fight. But something we all are capable of is compassion.

When I started night shift, several people told me that I needed to have thick skin to survive. During a conversation several nights ago, someone reminded me of this again, stating that to work in this dispatch center. My comment caught them off guard when I simply asked: “Do you need thick skin because of the work we do or the people that we work with?”

It’s harsh to hear, but we, as a society, have an issue. It’s not something that people realize that they are doing, because we are so used to it. It’s an ugly word that everyone wants to deny. It’s bullying.

Picture this: You are sitting with some of your coworkers and somebody makes a mistake. You know it, they know it, everyone knows it. And somebody makes the snide comment; “They are so stupid!” And everyone laughs. And you feel uncomfortable.

Or picture this: One of your teammates makes fun of another member of the team because they are new. Or young. Or introverted. Or just quieter than everyone else.

The old saying goes “Sticks and stone may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” Unfortunately, this is an absolute and complete lie. Words create wounds that slice deeper than any any eye can see. They strike into our hearts and cut our souls, spreading darkness like an infection. Words kill dreams just as easily as they shed tears.

When we make fun of people, of our teammates, we hurt everyone. If we talk down to one another, then who do we turn to to build one another up? If I hear a teammate curse the mistakes of someone, I ask myself what they will say when I, the new person on the shift, make a mistake? How do I know that they are not talking about me when I leave the room?

Harsh words. Inappropriately joking about one another. Cursing ones mistakes. Talking about people behind their backs. This is the face of bullying.

I know what you are thinking: “What does this have to do with Comicon?”

Heroes are made when you make a choice
– Hero, by Superchick

Every single one of can make a choice to stand. We can sit there and say nothing. Do nothing. To remain silent. To take it. Or we can make a difference. We can be heroes.

We may not have the strength or the power to tear down the walls around us, but we can save a life nonetheless.

I think one of the things that draws us to superheroes is that many of them wear masks. They hide their real personalities beneath strips of cloth and panels that make up their masks. It is the shield that we do not have.

When we step up to be heroes, when we step up to save a life, everyone will know who we really are. And that is a beautiful thing.

::::Side Note: Go listen to Hero by Superchick, and you will realize how much you could change the world::::