Firefighter Resiliency Tools: The Big 4.

19 mins read

Firefighter resiliency is too often seen as a byproduct of time. Certainly, being the responder in an emergency situation is something most new members of our service have to experience for themselves to develop a sense of familiarity. There are clear, data-driven methods we can use to help our recruits get ready for a career on the front lines of crises and similarly, help our senior firefighters bounce back a little easier from tough calls.  

Firefighter resiliency is a new science.

The study of personal resilience came from a blend of child psychiatry and developmental psychology(1). Emmy Werner was one of the earliest scientists to use the term, beginning in the 1970’s. Werner studied children in Hawaii who had the unfortunate circumstance of living with parents who had fallen onto hard times and noticed that two-thirds of those children exhibited destructive behaviours in their teenage years. For the latter third of children who did not succumb to those destructive behaviours, Werner used the term resilient to categorize them as being more able to succeed despite trauma. Since the inception of research surrounding resiliency, much work has been done to discover the positive factors that contribute to how we might adapt to adverse conditions(2).

Werner would go on to describe three general usages for personal resilience; good developmental outcomes despite high risk status; sustained competence under stress; and recovery from trauma(3). These traits are in specific, urgent demand in first responder communities. The call toward this line of work assumes that we would interact with trauma at regular intervals. Formal firefighter resiliency training pits well-researched methods to help fortify our responders’ minds against the hope that time will do that for us.

As the saying goes, hope isn’t a good plan.

A national study conducted with Canadian first responders in 2018 found more risk toward developing mental health disorders when compared to the general public. Of 5,813 responders, 44.5% screened positive for clinically concerning elements of mental disorders(4). From this sample, we can begin to extrapolate what the wider response community might be suffering with. When we’re welcoming our bright recruits into the fold, we ought to keep this in mind – we’re ushering in a generation of people who will certainly be faced with circumstances that can lead to damaging consequences. 

But, not only recruits. The sample above was taken from current responders. If we imagine that half of our peers are burdened by their work, a clear and present need begins to show.

Firefighter resiliency training is like building a brick wall - one brick at a time.
Firefighter resiliency training is like building a brick wall – one brick at a time.

Building the wall – one brick at a time.

To begin developing programming to offer to our personnel that can help combat the effects of the job itself, we can start by imagining the process as literally building a wall. We could place ourselves as a castle, lined up against a landscape with a brooding enemy clan somewhere on the horizon. After all, it won’t be by chance that we’re assaulted by trauma – it is coming. Where we can stand against it is in the construction of a sturdy wall placed between our fortress and the waves of oncoming invaders. With each brick, we can steadily fortify our minds to withstand the attack without becoming the wall itself. That is to say that our common experience is clearly separate from the process of designing a mindset that can endure trauma. We must specifically attend to this skill as we do stretching hose and searching occupied spaces.

Enter: The Big 4.

Luckily, the heavy lifting has already been done. On the backs of researchers a generation ago, the ‘Big 4’ tools for building mental resilience were originally developed by the US military. I came upon this toolset as part of The Working Mind for First Responders, a course offered by the Canadian Mental Health Commission. Separate, these tools are listed as goal setting, mental rehearsal, positive self talk and tactical breathing. Combined, these tools represent a trainable framework we can use to better prepare our people for exposure to trauma.

These tools work well alongside our more well-known techniques for helping to respond to trauma; a clean diet, an active lifestyle, time spent with loved ones and stimulating hobbies.

1: Goal Setting

Goal setting is the bearing by which all of our actions are aimed. Without a properly defined goal – and it is possible to craft a goal incorrectly – we cannot efficiently use our most finite resources to chase progress. Time and effort are investments toward making things better but without a target, we won’t ever hit the mark. SMART goals are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-sensitive. Students in a US study who were given instruction on developing goals using SMART methodology eventually lead to better execution downstream than those who did not receive that instruction(5). Honing our ability to create meaningful personal objectives with good technique allows us to stay on the path – the road we know we’re supposed to be on.

A core component of firefighter resiliency training is predicated on good goal setting technique. For a free and open source guide to good goal setting, click here to access The Wedge.

2: Mental Rehearsal

The process of imagining yourself performing is used widely in athletic circles. For example, I’ve used this technique to envision myself within a grappling match to imagine what take-down I would use to engage my opponent. From there, I can use my mind’s eye to ‘see’ from a first person perspective what might happen next and which moves I can use to mitigate my opponent’s response. In my experience through the fire service, I’ll use mental rehearsal to ‘practice’ calls without actually attending to the scene. Using first aid scenarios found online or recent calls as fodder for the exercise, I’ll imagine arriving to the call, pulling tools off the truck and actually getting into the hot zone. Mental rehearsal is an extremely valuable skill because it allows us to practice experiencing things without direct exposure to trauma. 

3: Positive Self Talk

Positive self-talk is a skill that is best practiced with or just prior to strenuous activities. It plays well with exercise, because if you work hard enough, you’ll eventually hit ‘the wall’. In the moment where your mind tries to convince your body that you’ve done all you can do, positive self-talk can help fight against the waves of defeat and steer toward the open water of transcendence. Tell yourself, out loud or in your imagination, that you’re capable of pushing through. I like to use phrases like ‘all day’ or ‘I live here’ to coax myself into pushing out past the moments where I feel like quitting.

Developing resilience is about training yourself to endure. When faced with tasks or trouble that offer pressure, the resilient firefighter is prepared to resist.

A study I often refer to when it comes to understanding our responses to stress was recently concluded from research with the US Navy Seals. In 2020, the study found that Hell Week candidates who took on a ‘stress is useful’ mindset ultimately had better obstacle course results, better reviews by peers and instructors and more persistence through training(6). Telling yourself that you can succeed despite the adverse conditions is a helpful way to press through challenging circumstances.

4: Tactical Breathing

Tactical breathing is a practical skill we’re taught early into our fire service career. We use ‘box breathing’ to form a 4-second pattern for conserving air. A technique for enduring and recovering from a traumatic experience can be found in the ‘physiological sigh’. Andrew Huberman is the Stanford University Ph.D of Neurobiology who has recently popularized deep research into the use of this technique. The physiological sigh is a breathing pattern that replicates the way we breathe when we’re about to fall asleep or when we cry. In other words, this technique tricks our brain into calming. When using this approach, the resting alveoli in our lungs are ‘popped’ open, allowing more oxygen in while offloading excess carbon dioxide. When oxygen levels are low and carbon dioxide levels are high, our stress response is activated. This breathing technique immediately impacts that response(7).

Here’s how it works; take two deep inhales through your nose and one long, complete exhale through your mouth. Repeat that process 2-3 times. This process is unique in that it can be used ‘in the moment’. This skill can be used leading up to a known stressful event, inside a stressful event and immediately following a stressful event.

These skills can be compiled into a lesson plan for in-class learning or better, formulated as part of a multi-session fitness and mindset development program. Delivery to new recruits and existing members could take the form of a voluntary extra-curricular or a mandated program for building a more fortified attitude. 

Program design ideas for firefighter resiliency

A program could couple exercises in stress management that bolster these skills for use in the field. For example, a participant could be given instructions beforehand on what might be expected of them and then subjected to a routine of physical endurance exercises. Allowing the participants a few moments of quiet reflection can help train the aspects of mental rehearsal before a known stressor. After their heart rate has started to escalate, mimicking a stress response, the participant could conduct a task of mental acuity – memorizing and reproducing a drawing. Coaching the participant as they go through this process, you can offer breathing techniques to help steady their state of mind in a heightened emotional state to complete the task. 

Or, a participant could spend some time browsing a set of size-up scenarios. Both by reaffirming their core knowledge and discussing with team members, this process of readying the mental processes before a trying event can both create a platform for confidence and condition the participant versus the stress of the event itself. Then, allowing the participant to conduct a simulated size up of a scenario under controlled stress will allow them to experience similar feelings of apprehension or anxiety without being at a live scene. 

Debriefing to teach the Big 4

Debriefing in both of these scenarios can lend incredible value to the process of informed firefighter resiliency training. Allow for open conversation and encourage participants to give voice to their experience. Here, the honest and vulnerable coach can offer experiences that share the type of emotional response felt by participants. Coaches, where firefighter resiliency training is concerned, will always outweigh educators.

Not only are the ‘Big 4’ tools used for helping to prepare for responses to trauma, they’re also suited for recovery. At the bedrock of all action is proper aim. Sometimes, when we’re confronted with trauma, our ability to cope is overwhelmed. Good goal setting technique can help us crawl out from under a bad call. Even by pointing ourselves toward tiny forward increments, we can start to build back what is sometimes lost with the apathy or depressive feelings that can accompany traumatic experiences. The physiological sigh is a crucial technique for mitigating stress in all forms. When we begin to feel blanketed by the burden that can suppress us after an emotional call, realizing that we have a method to fight back can help empower the reconstruction of calmer thinking.

Tools in the tool box.

Of course, tools by themselves are rarely useful. These techniques require the same type of focused training that our other fireground skills are predicated on. If we stop taking vitals, we quickly lose the ability to find a pulse. When we fail to train on ropes and rigging, the knots slowly twist away from our grasp. If we depend on these skills to be present when we need them but fail to practice them on a regular regimen, we’re destined to be disappointed.

Employee assistance programs, peer support groups, critical incident stress teams and wellness committees attack the same problem from the opposite angle. Where these resources build out responses to trauma, firefighter resiliency training helps reduce signs and effects of psychological stress in advance. Not only from the job itself, but from everyday stressors as well(8). The fire service is well-equipped to deliver this type of training to the people who fill its ranks.

They deserve it.

Embracing formal firefighter resiliency training in the fire service is the logical step toward preserving our personnel. We take our time to ensure our tools are taken care of and our trucks are clean. Our crews ensure our packs are tested for failures. We offer time and effort toward survival skills on the fireground. Now, it’s time we put the work in where it matters most – the fortified mind of the responder.

Sources:
  1. Vernon, R.F. (2004). A Brief History of Resilience. In: Clauss-Ehlers, C.S., Weist, M.D. (eds) Community Planning to Foster Resilience in Children. Springer, Boston, MA. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-0-306-48544-2_2
  2. En.wikipedia.org. 2022. Psychological resilience – Wikipedia. [online] Available at: <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychological_resilience#History> [Accessed 1 April 2022].
  3. Werner E. Resilience in development. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 1995;4(3):81–85. [Google Scholar]
  4. Resilient minds: Building the psychological strength of … Resilient Minds. (2018, October). Retrieved April 20, 2022, from https://resilientminds.cmha.ca/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/Vancouver-Resilient-Minds-Oct-13_2018-FINAL.pdf
  5. Aghera, A., Emery, M., Bounds, R., Bush, C., Stansfield, R. B., Gillett, B., & Santen, S. A. (2018). A Randomized Trial of SMART Goal Enhanced Debriefing after Simulation to Promote Educational Actions. The western journal of emergency medicine, 19(1), 112–120. https://doi.org/10.5811/westjem.2017.11.36524
  6. 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
  7. MacCormick, A. H., Erickson, A. M., White, A. T., & Armitage, A. H. (2020, October 7). How stress affects your brain and how to reverse it. Scope. Retrieved April 20, 2022, from https://scopeblog.stanford.edu/2020/10/07/how-stress-affects-your-brain-and-how-to-reverse-it/
  8. Deppa, K. F., & Saltzberg, J. (2016). Resilience training for firefighters: An approach to prevent behavioral health problems. Springer International Publishing AG. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-38779-6

Bill Dungey is a volunteer firefighter in Ontario, Canada. He is focused on fitness, mindset development and finding training opportunities to help the fire service make things better.

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