Recently I had the opportunity to re-read “On Combat” by Lieutenant Colonel David Grossman. While this book is geared toward the sheepdogs of society (police and military) there are some definite concepts that affect the fire service and firefighters. As I was re-reading it, I noticed that some things seemed to jump out at me and were much clearer than they had been the first time. Part of my clarity comes from some great fireman I have discussed these ideas with. Firemen like Ric Jorge and Chris Brennan, who understand our mental side far better than I ever will.
I feel strongly that the more we understand how we think, and how our minds work, the better prepared we will be “in the moment’ when everything is turning upside down, and we are going sideways. The concepts explained by Colonel Grossman are not exclusive to law enforcement or the military that is just the discipline he teaches in. In this piece I will try and explain how these concepts apply to us, and hopefully shed some light on why we do what we do, and how to be better prepared to avoid what could be fatal mistakes.
To begin to make some sense of our bodies and minds, we first need to understand what happens when stress causes a hormonal increase in your heart rate. This is not the same as exercise increasing your heart rate, so it is something that is difficult to duplicate in training.
“Did you ever observe to whom accidents happen? Chance favors the prepared mind.” – Louis Pasteur
What Louis Pasteur was referring to when he made this statement is that in the scientific world, while doing experiments, the unexpected can happen. If you are unprepared for those results, you may miss something important.
The other side of that coin is simply this; if you have not taken to the time to consider what you will do at a certain incident, then how can you expect to function in that moment. It’s like the Andy Fredericks’ quote, “The garbage man doesn’t get excited when he sees a pile of garbage.” First it is telling us that every time we go out the door we should expect work, or “Expect Fire.” Second it is telling us that if we have taken to time to ‘war-game’ the fire, then when we pull up and it is our worst case scenario, we will be better prepared to act. We can’t wait until 2am, with babies being dropped out of the windows to think about what we are going to do, and if we will be able to do it – on both a personal and company level.
In the book ‘On Combat’, Lt Colonel Grossman quotes Dr. Ignatius Piazza on the subject of police officers being prepared to kill, “These are terrible decisions to make and we would like to avoid them at all costs. However, if you do not make the decisions in advance, I guarantee you that you will hesitate to make them later and that hesitation may make the difference between you living and dying.” (On Combat; P148)
Obviously, we are not making decisions about taking lives, but the decision to risk our lives falls into the same category. By mentally preparing ourselves for the potential situations we may face, not only are we ready for the unexpected that may happen, but we have mentally put ‘us’ in that moment and had the mindset to think about what we will and won’t do.
Have you considered the moment when heat is pushing you to the floor. A closed doorway lies ahead and you can hear screams for help behind it? Have you considered what you will do in that moment? Can you live with the choices you will make?
The debate isn’t whether the victim is alive or dead, it is whether you can physically make the rescue or not. As soon as you start determining life or death, you are playing God, not being a firefighter. If you can do it, you should do it. That is the oath we have sworn, that is the mission, that is the job.
Like a police officer that has not contemplated if he can shoot another human being, if you have not considered if you can and will put yourself in harms ways, you are setting yourself up to fail when the citizens and your crew will need you most.
“You must train to fight with intent and will, not fear and panic, and never with complacency” (On Combat; P.178) While we are not training to fight another human being, we are training to fight. If we go through life, unprepared for what may happen, we are more likely to fall victim to the worst that can happen. But if we treat each incident as if it is the real thing, enter with the proper mindset; plan, practice and practice some more, then we should come out on the other side unscathed.
Consider this; you get a call at 6:30am for a fire alarm at a residence. You are mentally getting ready to leave, finishing your paperwork, and as you climb on the Engine you think, it is just an AFA, I am not going to bother to get dressed. As you pull into the driveway everything changes, heavy smoke is coming from the house and the owner is standing on the lawn waving you over. Your mind now strips gears; you are trying to size things up and thinking “holy shit I have to get dressed”. You tell your driver to find out what the homeowner has to say as you jump out of the engine and throw your gear on. Your heart rate soars through 130 as your thinking, “man, I am screwed, we should be stretching a line and I still not dressed.” You drop your hood for the third time, and decide to go in without it. You ask your driver what the story is as you are looking at the house trying to figure out what is burning, you hear about half of what he says as you see your jumpseat firefighter stretching the 200’ preconnect. You think, “we don’t need 200, why did he do that” and yell at him to grab the 150’ instead.
Now this may seem unrealistic, but I assure you it isn’t. The fact that the officer arrives unprepared will cause stress and the attendant increase in heart rate, before you even consider how significant the fire is. Then as you fumble through getting dressed, each second will seem like a minute. You mind will spin from the task at hand to wondering how bad an ass chewing you will get for not being ready. Your thoughts will not be rational, and your performance will suffer. You crew will suffer, you will suffer.
Front Seat Truths:
You must flow enough GPM to overcome the BTUs – Flow Water For The Win
You aren’t a soldier, your enemy isn’t alive and fire never has a bad day – Train Like Your Life Depends On It
Fire doesn’t need a plan; you do. – Failing To Plan, Is Planning To Fail
Just because it hasn’t happened, doesn’t mean it won’t happen – Expect The Worst
Less fires make it harder to prepare and remain vigilant – Complacency Kills
The time to consider what you will do is not 2am on the front lawn – Mental Preparedness Is Crucial
Hesitancy is just as dangerous as recklessness – Be Confident In Your Abilities
Photo courtesy of Mark Brady PIO, Prince George’s County Fire and EMS Department
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