A healthy dose of fear is good. Too much is debilitating

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If you read the magazines, social media or take a class, you can’t help but be bombarded by the messages that proclaim this job is dangerous. So much of it is used today to advocate for us being better at our job is safety. Which is a good thing, or is it?

When we preach from a position of fear are we preparing our firefighters correctly to do the job? “Hundreds of firefighters die each year in fires.” “Firefighter safety comes first.” “Life safety priorities start with the firefighter and then the victim.” If we are training our firefighters correctly, we should be training them in such a way that their safety is inherent with their decisions and actions. The lessons of all those that have gone before us should be incorporated into every rookie school, lesson plan, company drill and kitchen table talk. Certainly specific examples will be used, they hold some critical information, but the sensational headlines of “you can die if you do this job” over and over again, sow seeds of fear and doubt into those charged with protecting the public.

Make no mistake, this job is dangerous and you can be killed and that message needs to be conveyed. But as is often the case it isn’t what you say but how you say it, or even more importantly how the message is received.

“Specifically, the order of the size-up considerations should be changed to reflect a prioritized list with “Life” being the first consideration, and the lives of FDNY firefighters taking precedence over all others.” [1]

For starters let’s all agree, one line of duty death is too many and zero is unattainable. There are simply things we cannot control that will lead to a LODD. This does not lessen our resolve to be better and safer, but grounds us with the reality that sometimes things happen that we cannot control.

Now that we have agreed on that, let’s talk about this message, “100 firefighters a year die in fires” is the most bastardized quote used to support an argument. 100 firefighters do not die on the nozzle, or the roof, or doing VES. In fact, 100 don’t die on the fireground. We should be honest in the message we send, because there are plenty of lessons to learn from the LODDs that do not happen on the fireground.

If in every lesson in rookie school every instructor starts out with, “you can die doing this job.”, and then every instructor after keeps emphasizing that death is an outcome of doing your job, then we will create firefighters that are fearful and tentative about doing their jobs.

“You must train to fight with intent and will, not fear and panic, and never with complacency” [2]

There are also those preaching we shouldn’t want to do our job, that firefighters shouldn’t ‘wish for fires’. Okay, I get it; we should not hope for the destruction of property or the loss of life and I have never met a firefighter that did. But I know a lot of fireman that train their asses off to be ready when that call comes. They took this job to make a difference, and they enjoy the challenge of doing their job. There is nothing wrong with that. Telling them they are wrong for wanting to practice their craft is like telling a pitcher he shouldn’t enjoy pitching, because he may hit a batter. Or a race car driver he shouldn’t enjoy the race because someone might crash. It is our job, we signed up to do it and quite frankly the guy who doesn’t want to go to fires shouldn’t be on the truck.

Firefighting is hard, dangerous work that requires determination, perseverance, hard work and constant awareness. There will be times when we are forced to push the envelope. What allows us to do that is a good foundation of skill, confidence and the knowledge our brothers are there for us. Confidence comes from understanding what needs to be done, what it will take to do it and preparing ourselves to meet that challenge.

“Warrior Mindset is more than aggressiveness and determination; it is about overcoming challenge and adversity. It’s about possessing, understanding, and being able to utilize a set of psychological and physical skills that allow someone to be effective, adaptive, and persistent. It also allows someone to use optimal decision-making, psychological techniques, physical and tactical skills learned in training and by experience.”  [3]

The quote above could very easily be adapted to our line of work. While the context is military/law enforcement, the concepts easily apply to the fire service. Our mental preparation is just as important, if not more so, than our physical preparation. You can be the most physically prepared firefighter in the world, but if your mind can’t function under stress you will be no good to anyone. As Ric Jorge says, “Let the mind prepare you for where the body has to go.”

At the end of the day, like what we eat is important to our physical health, what we put into our minds is important to our mental health. Don’t feed our firefighters with a diet of fear and risk; give them a balanced diet of skill, training and confidence to complete the mission of the fire service.

Expect Fire   Expect Victims   Occupants First

 

References

1. “Can They Be Saved? Utilizing Civilian Survivability Profiling to E... Stephen Marsar, Captain, Fire Department of New York, New York City New York.

2. “On Combat, The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace”  Dave Grossman, October 2008

3. “Warrior Mindset: Mental Focus” Combat Tradecraft, Keith Sipmann, March 2015

 

Photo courtesy of Bill Carey

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