Firefighter Wisdom For Tough Times with Hersch Wilson

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70% of firefighters in America are volunteers. Most fire districts are served by largely volunteer or combined career and volunteer departments. Today we’re talking with such a volunteer who reveals how first responders can guide us in ways to act more effectively in our own lives. He advises, and it is his experience, that it is helpful to approach life’s inevitable emergencies with the intention to remain calm and act creatively. Prepare yourself for insightful and practical wisdom as he talks about an approaching adversity. “[When] something bad happens it's not laid out for us neat…it's chaotic. We need to learn to stop, get underneath the smoke, see what's really happening in order to do the right thing.” He also talks about how our smart phones are like fire dispatchers putting us on-call 24/7. “The cost to always being hooked into your phone is being [constantly] adrenalized, intellectually going at mach 2, hair on fire … I'm not going to let all the stuff that comes at me during the day, all that chaos, good, bad, indifferent, define who I am. I'm not going to let it flow through me; It’s going to flow around me. It’s a learning process. With firefighters, when we go to a really bad call, there's so much [chaos] going on, we have to stay centered. We have to see what the problem really is. We cannot get distracted by the loudest people yelling. We have to stay focused and intentional.” Wilson points out that when things are going well we can get away with a kind of “Lone-Ranger” life. “But when tough stuff happens, like what we're going through right now, it's vital to have community.” (hosted by Justine Willis Toms) 


Hersch Wilson is a former ballet dancer (along with his wife Laurie) and is now a 30-year veteran volunteer firefighter–EMT with the Hondo Fire Department in Santa Fe County, New Mexico. He is also a writer, speaker, and consultant who has worked extensively with leadership teams from a variety of organizations including IBM Japan, the US Postal Service, and the CIA, to name a few. He also writes a monthly column on dogs for the Santa Fe New Mexican. 

Hersch Wilson is the author of: 

  • Play to Win!: Choosing Growth Over Fear In Work And Life (coauthor with his late father, Larry Wilson) (Bard Press; Revised Edition 2004)
  • Firefighter Zen: A Field Guide To Thriving In Tough Times (New World Library 2020) 

To learn more about Hersch Wilson go to

Topics explored in this dialogue include: 

  • What is the story of Wilson and his wife becoming volunteer firefighters
  • What is the history of the poster Keep Calm – Carry On
  • What the Talmud says about our obligation to be of help
  • What is a firefighter’s stance
  • How smart phones are like fire dispatchers, always on-call
  • How fire is a living thing
  • How can we be prepared or train for some dark thing when we don’t know from where or when it is coming
  • How every great thing we’ve accomplished in this country has been done in community
  • What is the lesson of empathy and kindness as demonstrated by the late Otis Maxfield, M.D.
  • What is a Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD) and how does it help in the healing process
  • What is meant be “getting under the smoke”
  • How Incident Command School trains firefighters to step back, take time, see what’s really going on before acting
  • What does “staying inside the hulu hoop” mean
  • What happens in the grieving process after all the funerals, eulogies, and gatherings are over
  • What are some kindness killers
  • How the ego can prevent us from being brave enough to be emotionally uncomfortable
  • How the 2020 pandemic has made it impossible for anyone to be sitting on the sidelines
  • Why it is more true than ever that we are called to be empathic and to be of use to others
  • A useful question might be: What are the consequences if I don’t do the brave thing?”
  • What is a practical timeline that we can make for ourselves

Host: Justine Willis Toms   Interview Date: 9/25/2020   Program Number: 3714

Music Playlist

From Album:  Silver Ship
Artist: Suzanne Ciani
2007 Seventh Wave B0009941I4

Opening Essay: Track 04 Capri
Music Break 1: Track 02 Wine Dark Sea
Music Break 2: Track 04 Capri (reprise)
Music Break 3: Track 05 Eclipse