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Buddhism in Action for Peace
History & Philosophy
Stories and reflections on the Buddhist approach to life
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Why did you choose to become a firefighter?
Amir: I was 18 years old when I decided to become a firefighter. At first, I was attracted to the excitement, the uniform and gear. Since I had emigrated to the United States from the Middle East only a few years prior, I did not have an in-depth knowledge of the culture and the requirements to become a firefighter.
As I became involved as a volunteer in the Los Angeles Fire Department, I became aware of the tremendous demands placed on a firefighter physically and psychologically. I also became aware of the intense competition to become a firefighter in California. I enjoyed the camaraderie and teamwork and also the fact that every day and every emergency call was different, and you actually made a difference in someone’s life at that moment. All of this made me more attracted to the job, and my seven-year road to being hired began in 1993.
Kwok Keung: I had wanted to be a firefighter since I was a child. I am an active person and I have absolutely no interest in office work, so I applied to be a firefighter immediately after my graduation from high school. I had physical advantages over many of the other candidates as well as discipline, thanks to having been a member of the SGI-Hong Kong Golden Eagle gymnastics team from an early age. I sailed through the examination part of the recruitment process.
What are the biggest dangers in your work and how do you deal with them?
Kwok Keung: The biggest danger is of course going into the scene of a fire to save other people’s lives. When there is a fire, everyone wants to escape and save themselves; we are the only ones who go inside to rescue others. Of course, we don’t run in without thinking. Everything depends on our knowledge of fire safety, our ongoing training and experience, as well as our ample and complete range of firefighting equipment, all of which allow us to deal with a range of dangerous situations safely.
Amir: Every incident, from a patient with a heart attack to a large commercial building fire, has inherent dangers. Whether we are walking into a gang-related incident masked as a medical emergency, responding to a structure or forest fire, or mitigating a large-scale natural disaster such as an earthquake, they all have various hazards that can injure or kill additional civilians and fire responders. We minimize this inherent risk in a rapidly changing environment through constant training, situational awareness, clear and concise communication, and strict adherence to a chain of command in order to avoid confusion.
The second and the more dangerous type of risk is mental attitude. It is said that a firefighter with two to five years of experience is most vulnerable in the face of danger. The danger lies in becoming overconfident and not paying attention to details. A strict and humble mental attitude is vital in protecting yourself and your team as well as constantly growing and learning.
What are the most enjoyable aspects of your work and what are the most challenging?
Amir: For me, the most enjoyable has always been to work in the busiest areas of the city and respond to emergencies. That is where the rubber meets the road, and I can make the greatest difference. I can create the most value at my work when I make a difference in someone’s life.
The most challenging nature of firefighting is irregular sleep and staying healthy. There are many nights when firefighters do not get any rest and are responding to emergencies running only on adrenaline. In the long run this is unhealthy, and the majority of firefighters suffer from heart conditions at a relatively young age.
Kwok Keung: I get the most enjoyment from successfully saving the lives of those who are trapped in a fire and helping minimize the casualties. And the most touching moment is when I see the smiles on their faces when they realize they are safe.
What elements of Buddhist philosophy are most useful to you in your day-to-day work?
Kwok Keung: Because I strongly believe that my job is a force for good and helps people, I try to put my entire being into each task. I am enthusiastic about my work; Buddhism motivates me to continue to deepen and develop my skill and ability as a firefighter.
related article Legal Challenges by Joëlle Troeder and Birgit Rosenbaum Two Buddhists working in the legal profession, in Belgium and Germany respectively, discuss their work and how Buddhism influences their approach to it. Amir: My Buddhist practice has been a tremendous pillar of support for my work. As firefighters, we are constantly exposed to the suffering of people during extreme emergency conditions. Firefighters see the best and worst of people regularly. Many firefighters develop numbness to human suffering, as I did at the beginning of my career. This is a coping mechanism in order to be competent at work; however, it is destructive in a firefighter’s personal life and family. Through my Buddhist practice and study, I have established a solid understanding and respect for life. I have a strong grasp of the nature of death as well. As a result, I am able to internalize and face my emotions. This self-empowerment as well as the ability to pray for my patients has given me greater hope and a sense of responsibility as a firefighter.
How does your daily Buddhist practice equip you to deal with what must sometimes be a very stressful job, dealing with fires and accidents?
Amir: My daily Buddhist practice has been very beneficial for me. As Buddhism explains the oneness of self and environment, I can attest to this concept since I have experienced a unity with my environment during emergency incidents. I have experienced this through either recognizing a critical minor detail or even escaping major injuries or death by split seconds. My daily practice has given me an anchor point that provides calmness, composure and clear focus. My practice also redirects my attitude toward hope and respect for life.
Kwok Keung: My daily practice of Buddhism enhances my wisdom and expands my life. This naturally helps me learn more quickly and become better at my job.
How do you see the mission of firefighters in society? In what ways can you educate the community about fire safety and the environment?
Kwok Keung: I think the firefighter’s mission is to protect the life and property of all citizens, as well as raise people’s awareness of fire safety. To achieve this goal, our fire department provides regular courses and organizes major events on fire safety for the public.
Amir: I firmly believe that the mission of firefighters in society is to protect life and give hope to people amid chaos and hopelessness. Many times, the people who call the fire department are experiencing the greatest emergency of their lifetime. This is an opportunity for the firefighter not only to help but also give hope. A firefighter can do this through competence, composure and, most importantly, a sense of responsibility.
[Adapted from the April 2012 issue of the SGI Quarterly]
From Trauma to Drama
by Gerrit Versteeg, Netherlands
Only One Yes
by Clayton Surrat, USA
by Ana I. Ruiz Núñez and Tina Rosén
The Power of Friendship
by Peninah Achieng-Kindberg, UK
Fighting for My Daughter: Finding My True Mission
by Rachel Aspögård, Sweden
A Fierce Determination to Live
by Jharna Narang, survivor of the 26/11 Mumbai attacks
Creating a World Where All Belong
by Sinéad Lynch, Ireland