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Mindful : August 2013
now FOOTFALLS Next time you walk, notice each foot as it meets the ground and as you lift it and swing it. No need to look down. Don’t bump into anyone. Find more on Twitter @mindinterrupter OVERHEARD “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” Jackie Robinson, engraved in the rotunda at Citi Field, New York City They were an experienced crew of smokejump- ers—firefighters who parachute in to fight forest fires—and they were battling an out-of-control blaze in the Los Padres National Forest of California. But while they rushed to tackle a spot fire in front of them, they didn’t notice that a ver tical plume of flame and smoke had burst above them, cut ting off their only path to safety. Trapped, they resor ted to the small cocoon- like shelters they each carr y to protect them from the intense heat. For tunately, no one was killed that day, but three of the firefighters needed treatment for burns. One was in hospital for a week. “They got caught in tunnel vision,” says veteran firefighter Jim Saveland (pictured on previous page), who studied the 2008 fire as par t of his work in risk management at the US Forest Ser vice. For Saveland, who is a smokejumper himself, the incident raised an important, potentially life-or-death challenge: how to help firefighters maintain situational awareness, espe- cially in the midst of dangerous, high-stress situations. “So we developed a mindfulness course,” Saveland says, “and piloted it with some crews in the West.” Saveland, 59 and a longtime meditator, has gone on to develop a series of programs with mindfulness elements to reduce work-related injuries and death in the Forest Ser vice, which averages six fatalities a year. “I think a mindfulness practice can help folks be a little bit more cool, calm, and collected in high-stress situa- tions,” he says. “Are you just reacting or are you bring- ing some deliberate decision-making to the process?” Saveland has looked at U.S . militar y studies show- ing that in high-stress situations, the neocor tex—the par t of the brain that manages higher functions, spa- tial perception, and motor commands—can go offline. Firefighters and armed forces personnel face many of the same physical and emotional challenges. “When fighting fires you may experience auditor y exclusion, where you don’t hear cer tain things,” he says. “With mindfulness training the neocor tex re- mains online longer and comes back online quicker.” Saveland also sees mindfulness as a means to build emotional resiliency and to help people recover from job-related stress and trauma—key for those who fight fire for a living. A Boston native who moved to Georgia at a young age, Saveland spent several years at the Air Force Academy, where he was on the parachute team, then went on to ser ve as an Airman during the Vietnam era. He earned his master’s in fire ecology at the University of Idaho. “Early on I read about these crazy people who jump out of airplanes into forest fires,” he says. “It sounded like something interesting to pursue, to become a smokejumper.” Saveland has had a mindfulness practice for years and is also proficient in aikido. Taking Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program helped him introduce mindfulness in an institutional setting. “Most of my meditation these days is when I find a spare moment off duty outside or go for a hike and find a place,” he says. Using his experience with mindfulness as an inspi- ration, Saveland is spearheading other pilot programs at the Forest Service, including Yoga for Firefight- ers. His office is funding research at Oregon State University about attributes that make for good leaders in firefighting crews. The researcher there has come up with something called S.H .A .R .P., which Saveland describes this way: Stop: Take a moment; what’s happening, what’s go- ing on? Here: Am I present? Act: What are my actions at the moment? Respond: How am I affecting the situ- ation? Person: Am I taking care of myself? Not a bad strategy for being in the heat of any moment, flames or not. ● In the Face of Fire “Are you just reacting or are you bringing some deliberate decision- making to the process?” Jim Saveland 12 mindful August 2013 PHOTOGRAPHBYSANDYHUFFAKER/GETTYIMAGES