Jason Sautel: Finding Faith in the Fire (Part 4)

John FarrellBy John Farrell13 Minutes

John Farrell: What kind of pressures and stress did your job as a firefighter place on your relationships with your loved ones?

Jason Sautel: The common theme you’ll hear me say is, “You pick up a piece of something from everything.” Let’s even take it like this: I go on what’s called a strike team where I’m a city fireman, but fire is fire and water puts fire out, so when a grass fire hits off, we go to that too.

I’m on a strike team and I’m out for 14 days fighting fire. Maybe it’s a raging fire that wipes out a town and you see people who perished in the flames. You recognize that and you see that. Well, at the end of those 14 days, you come home (like someone who’s been at work nine to five ) and open the door and your wife is like, “Hey kids, daddy’s home!” And just an hour ago you were staring at a dead body or someone who’d gone through something horrible.

When you walk through the door, how do you talk to your family? Like when they ask, “How was work?” “Let me tell you about the dead bodies in the fires and people screaming. And the pressure of running into a burning building and hoping I don’t die. My day was great!”

It’s like you have no one to talk to sometimes. That is the stress that weighs down first responders, both Christian and non-Christian first responders. As a Christian, do I still look at the same dead body? Does it hurt me the same? Yes, 100%, but I have a way to deal with it now because I have clarity on how it happened. I have directions on how I can deal with it. I have layers.

First thing I would do is talk to my crew. Then if needed, I would talk to a trained Christian psychologist who has also dealt with fire department stuff. Then my wife, but I wouldn’t bring the unfiltered view of what I just looked at to my wife and kids because their minds can’t handle that, and my wife couldn’t handle that. So, the struggles for the first responders and everything we deal with—the pressures, the naysayers, the stuff we have to deal with—it just really weighs you down and it puts a huge burden on your family life.

JF: Firefighting is a popular choice for kids when they’re asked what they want to be when they grow up. What advice would you offer kids who want to be firefighters when they grow up?

Jason: What a great question. So real quick, I’m going to give you a little backstory. We adopted Bethany, my niece in the book, and her brother. We’d been married for two years, and because of some really bad circumstances in our family, we adopted them. It’s such a cool, great story that I can’t wait to share someday. But with that being said, my nephew, who we adopted and got at age seven and raised as my son the moment he walked through the door, wanted to become a firefighter. And as we speak, he’s out fighting fires in California. He’s been doing it for 32 days straight.

I joke that I shouldn’t have told him all those firehouse stories because there’s a healthy fear that a parent has: “Wow, my child’s getting into a dangerous career.” But you have to look at how I’m looking at it, I’ve lived through everything. It’s not even about the true death, which, obviously I don’t want my son to die, but all the traumas I’ve been through. Now he’s doing that.

He called me last week and said, “Dad, we went by a car and these people were trying to escape the fire and they couldn’t make it.” He’s 22 years old and had to see that. I just wanted to share that story with you before I answered.

To answer your question of what advice would I give—first off, as a young child, I wanted to be an Army Ranger. We never know what we want because kids are drawn to the aura like most people are. They see a fire engine go by with guys with badges. They don’t see that it’s just a regular human sitting there. A lot of people are attracted to the “superhero” image, which is why children are drawn to it. But once they get older, they realize those are just humans like me sitting up there.

So, the advice that I give a person who wants to be a firefighter is you only do it if you want to serve people. If you don’t have a servant’s heart where you are truly willing to lay your life down so others can live, don’t do it. That comes on multiple levels. Everyone thinks fire. Well, yeah, if I need to die in a fire so someone may live, not a problem, but just walking out of your house every day, you stop being a dad, you stop being a mom, you stop being a parent, and you basically die to that and you show up to medical calls and help people having heart attacks. If you don’t have it in your heart that you truly have been called to serve people, don’t do it.

The second thing I’m going to say is don’t do it if you want to get glory out of it. You don’t do it because you want the hero status because that’s not what it’s about whatsoever. You just do it because you feel there’s a deep calling within you.

Writing the Truth

JF: When you were writing this book, were there any chapters or sections you struggled with putting down on paper more than others?

Jason: Family conflict was the hardest thing because I wanted to honor my parents, but I wanted the true stories out there. I didn’t want it to be like the “secular books” that are out there about politics. Either you love or you hate a certain person, and you love to bring the chaos into it as we know that sells. Beating people down and making them look like garbage, the world eats that up.

That was a struggle I had because how do I truthfully present the struggle that I had with my parents? What it was like being raised by a dad who didn’t have the abilities to be a dad to the level that a child needed? Those were the struggles. And then looking back at the pain that it caused. I still don’t have a relationship with my dad. That really hurt because I also wanted to make sure that scripturally I was honoring him. That was tough.

Then on the fire side, one of the worst days of my life was the day the doctor walked into my room after I broke my back and told me I couldn’t be a fireman anymore. That was the worst day of my life, but it was also the best day of my life, looking back on it, because now I get to use everything I experienced for 22 years in ministry, which has been a blessing.

But I’ll be honest with you; it was really hard to write the stories because I really miss being a fireman. I know that’s not where God wants me anymore, but sometimes we still want. Like, “Okay, God, I’m following you. I love you.” But man, I sure miss being a fireman because I love the hands-on work.

Being a writer sometimes, and even teaching and preaching at churches, it’s kind of a lonely life. It’s tough because people see you differently than what you are. Sometimes when you start talking, they’re like, “Oh, he’s just a normal guy.” And they walk off or they want to be around you so much you have to safely keep your distance. I miss the comradery and being there. Writing all these stories, missing the love of the firehouse, and serving people in the brotherhood, those were tough parts too.

JF: Is there anything you would like to add that I may have not asked or something you want to reemphasize?

Jason: What I want people to know about The Rescuer is exactly what you said. The feedback I have is it’s tough at the beginning, but I think people need to look into the toughness because I love the way everything is done, but I sometimes don’t like the Hollywood effect where we just get glimpses of hope within it. Like the message is there, but that’s not true to reality of the person who was living it.

I want people to understand when they read this, it is kind of a tough read at the beginning, but it shows you why we so badly need to put our faith in Jesus. That’s what I want to wrap up with so that when people read it they don’t think, “Oh my, why did I pick this up? It’s really a tough firefighting book.” It definitely grabs you, but the feedback that’s come back from everyone who’s read it has blessed me beyond means. It’s been so cool to get the feedback from it. That’s been a total blessing.

Order your copy of The Rescuer: One Firefighter’s Story of Courage, Darkness, and the Relentless Love That Saved Him by Jason Sautel