Bricks in a wall: Resiliency as a core skill in the modern fire service
By Bill DungeyFeatures Uncategorized Training Week
When I’m trying to understand a new process, I try to imagine I’m explaining it to my 9-year-old son. That way, I can break down the fundamental steps into bite-size chunks of core information.
To describe the process of building mental resilience, I compare the process to building a castle wall.
We’ll start by imagining a far-off land where our castle resides. Somewhere on the horizon, an enemy clan threatens our way of life. For the purposes of our example, we’ll name this clan ‘trauma’. Where trauma (or traumatic experiences) can impact us, it’s important to prepare our defence. By using data-driven tools to build a fortified wall, brick by brick, protecting our castle is the process of building mental resilience itself.
A critical point, however, is to make sure we’re not confusing the castle with the wall.
Sometimes, the definition of resiliency is misaligned by assuming it means we should be impenetrable. Instead, I like to see mental resilience as being able to withstand trauma. In large part that has to do with bouncing back from traumatic experiences as well. It’s a process derived from techniques we can use to prepare for our interactions with hard calls.
Research from a project conducted with the Canadian Mental Health Commission’s Road 2 Mental Readiness (R2MR) program found that first responders are faced with high-stress situations that are directly related to a higher incidence of mental illness (Ref. 1). Knowing this, we ought to bring formal resiliency training to our service instead of hoping this skill will be adopted as a byproduct of time on the fire ground. Using proven resources, we can build the defences to face trauma without trying to become an emotional brick wall.
A continuation of the now-retired R2MR program, the Working Mind for First Responders program presents a set of cognitive behavioural therapy based tools toward understanding how we might train mental resiliency as a skill. The ‘Big 4’ tools include mental rehearsal, tactical breathing, goal setting and positive self-talk.
To help bridge these tools directly into the conversation about practicing resilience as a skill, mental rehearsal is an easy pick to use as an example from the ‘Big 4’. A keen firefighter could take a moment to practice this in the apparatus bay. Using a first-aid training scenario or a recent call as a starting point, mental rehearsal begins by viewing the circumstance through your mind’s eye. Imagine what the call would sound like, what tools you may need to pull off the truck and where those tools are located. Try to ‘see’ what you may run into when you get on scene. Ask yourself what you might be doing and try to envision yourself performing these tasks. This process of meditating on our operations allows us to interact with the feelings associated with these calls without being exposed to real trauma.
Practicing tactical breathing methods during our training can build one of the ‘Big 4’ techniques into an ingrained habit. Introduce a degree of stress through physical exercise, so the heart rate of participating firefighters can be increased to simulate the stress of an emergency. With instruction from programs like the The Working Mind for First Responders, we can rely on methods like box breathing (four second inhale, pause four seconds, four second exhale) or the physiological sigh (two sharp inhales, one complete exhale) to retain a steadier state of mind inside and immediately following the stressful event.
Goal setting is the bedrock for positive growth. Without a correctly defined aim, we cannot reliably move forward. Building goals with the SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Timely) methodology helps us to correct course if offset by a traumatic experience. With an instructor to lead the way, the members that make up our service can be invigorated to chase progress with a structured, proven approach.
Positive self-talk is a method for telling yourself, in your mind’s eye or out loud, that you are capable of moving through a challenging event. In 2020, a study conducted among the elite US Navy Seals found that candidates in their intense training program who adopted a ‘stress is good for me’ mindset ultimately had better obstacle course times, more persistence through training and better peer reviews (Ref. 2).
In researching the topic of mental wellness, Lynette Fritshaw of Fire Within Crisis Services in Dawson Creek, B.C., responded to some questions I asked about resiliency and training.
Fritshaw helped to carve a better understanding of building skills in resistance to trauma and resilience after the fact by comparing our mindset to our most common tool, bunker gear.
“We should give firefighters the proper PPE for the inside as well as the outside, so they are skilled and trained to look after themselves and each other, on and off the fire ground,” said Fritshaw.
The fire service is exceptional at designing impactful, progressive training. When a problem is discovered in operations, we generate standards and program new evolutions to patch the hole. If crisis intervention is the response to a reaction from a traumatic scene, formal resiliency training is the proactive solution. An important distinction exists between the worker and the wall, however. When I’m explaining the metaphor to my son, I’m careful to let him know that while it’s important to fortify yourself, you shouldn’t close off your emotional responses as a defence mechanism.
Fritshaw commented on this as well, from the standpoint of culture and community within our stations.
“Guiding someone toward building mental resilience without ‘becoming the wall’ means they have to be open and honest about what they’re experiencing. That takes a level of trust amongst the members and management.”
When we bring this asset to our service, it should be paired with the willingness from our senior members to explore the depths of the skill. We spend hours reviewing fire ground footage and drilling inventive victim carries. Just as warfighters depend on mindset development to gain the upper hand on the enemy, we too should attend to the mental side of our trade to best prepare our members for the fight.
The skills we use to prepare ourselves for facing trauma are meant to harden our mindset against the things we will encounter. We must be careful, however, to delineate the difference between our emotional state and the skills we employ to fortify it. Our behaviour is directly linked to the way we think. When we actively attend to the way we interpret our experiences, the same way we train fire ground skills, we are more able to respond.
The development of formal resiliency training is needed and deserved by our service. The same way we train with tools off the truck, interacting with trauma should be set as an expectation with techniques to help mitigate the stress responses our firefighters may have. Programs and services exist to set a standard for departments to align with. These dependable resources can be combined with the passion we share for our fire family to best prepare our responders for the road.
Building a more fortified fire service is just repetition – one brick at a time, like all worthwhile training. Anything less is letting the factions at our castle wall cross the moat unhindered.
- Szeto, A., Dobson, K. S., & Knaak, S. (2019). The Road to Mental Readiness for First Responders: A Meta-Analysis of Program Outcomes. Canadian journal of psychiatry. Revue canadienne de psychiatrie, 64(1_suppl), 18S–29S. https://doi.org/10.1177/0706743719842562
- Smith, E. N., Young, M. D., & Crum, A. J. (2020). Stress, Mindsets, and Success in Navy SEALs Special Warfare Training. Frontiers in psychology, 10, 2962. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02962
Bill Dungey is a volunteer firefighter in Brant, Ontario. He is focused on fitness, mindset development and finding training opportunities to help the fire service make things better.
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