“No passion so effectively robs the mind of its powers of acting and reasoning as fear.” Edmund Burke
Fear, as well as the synonymous emotions and actions that accompany it, has no place in the fire service. For us to examine this powerful emotion, you must understand the type of fear that I am discussing. We all have trivial fears, and these are not what I want to focus upon; fear of being late for roll call, fear of not getting a raise in the coming fiscal year, fear of not making the cut on the promotional list. True horror, the trepidation that comes when firefighters face dire circumstances, is an emotion that all of us must learn to combat and keep at bay when our lives hang in the balance. That emotion, the true fear that exists on a primal level deep down in our subconscious mind, is what I want you to set your mind on. All it takes is a series of events to trip the lever bringing our bodies and minds to the place where we have to make a choice, that choice being whether to give in to the fear or overcome it.
As certain as I am sitting here we will all be faced with fear at one point or another in our careers, provided we are doing our job. It may come on the roof above the fire when deflection is felt in the decking and suddenly your body begins to plummet. It may come deep in the backside of a tenement building when flames race at you with the speed of a freight train after control of the fire apartment door is lost. It may be much simpler than that. It may come in the moment of realization that you are not exactly in the building where you thought you were, it is silent, you are alone and you are lost! How do we deal with it?
In his blog post “Managing Fear” http://www.kyledefoor.com/2010/02/managing-fear.html former Navy Seal Sniper Kyle Defoor brings to light several points that outline his views on overcoming crippling fear. Furthermore, there are numerous texts at our disposal that cite in countless chapters the human mind’s ability, or inability to conquer fear. Boiling them all down to one singular neat package would be not only impossible; it would be a disservice to them. There is one common theme in each of them. Training, training, TRAINING!!!
Through steadfast training, we can teach our minds to overcome the panic that rises like a surging tide driving us towards doom. When you place a human being under circumstances where the potential for death or severe injury is a certain outcome, the emotion of fear is a natural response. While fear itself is not a bad thing, its effects of the body can be crippling. The effects of fear range widely, but in firefighters there are several physiological responses that will severely hinder our survival: freezing, inaction, panic, or flight. The easy part is to recognize the sequence of events that leads to the fear based reaction. The hard part is to suppress the mind and body’s natural tendency to panic or to freeze.
One of my mentors put it in terms that are very applicable to this topic. He stated, “When you find yourself in a situation where you want to panic, do so. Give yourself 3 seconds. Cry for your Momma, urinate in your underwear, and scream, just get it out of your system. After 3 seconds is over, pull up your bootstraps and do what you were trained to do.” While that may sound corny to some, think about it like this: Do you think Lt. Michael Murphy was not afraid on that lonely mountainside in Afghanistan with withering fire from the Taliban cutting his SEAL team to pieces? Do you not think Jay Bettencourt (Asheville NC Fire and Rescue) was afraid when crawling through a black Hell with no air, no visibility, and no way of knowing if he would ever make it out, all the while dragging his incapacitated officer, Capt. Jeff Bowen? Of course, they were afraid, but they did what it took to fight for survival! Instead of giving in to the crippling effect that fear can have on a human, they suppressed it and fought like mad to survive!
I have spent much of my career as an instructor giving firefighters the tools needed to survive in the event they find themselves in a dire situation, but simple training evolutions that are easily accomplished will not do the trick. To teach our mind and body to respond to such things as fear, we must make a focused attempt to make the training REAL. Some of us are fortunate. We live in areas that have a large burn building and an active training center. Others are not. For those not able to learn survival techniques under live fire conditions in a controlled environment, there are certain ways you can bring realism to your training.
Look at it from this perspective, anyone can sit in the apparatus floor and practice converting the waist belt of a brother or sister firefighter, or managing a high-pressure leak in their SCBA in clean air with good visibility. How can you replicate fire ground conditions that closely simulate the condition your body will be in when called to perform technical tasks under the worst conditions you can imagine? Unless we have a facility that will allow us to train under live fire conditions, then replicating extreme heat is out. The same goes for smoke if you do not have a smoke machine in your training cache. Honestly, you do not need a burn building or a smoke generator to accomplish realistic training. The part that firefighters miss by focusing on live fire and live smoke is this: while they are the conditions on the fire ground, they are mainly theatrics on the training ground.
Adding such elements as confusion, exhaustion, and time restrictions into drills will help to make the training more realistic. Many of us learned to connect our S.C.B.A.’s buddy breathing connections under favorable circumstances, most likely in a cool room, with the lights on, and our fire gloves off. Did we truly get a good grasp on that skill if we did not take it a step further? Furthermore, when we have to perform that skill on the actual fire ground, will we be in a cool room, with the lights on, and our fire gloves off? Absolutely not! Therefore, we must prepare ourselves to act in the most adverse conditions; high heat, zero visibility, confused, exhausted, disoriented, and fully protected by our gear.
Try this on for size: Set up a short distance course similar to that of the combat challenge. Have the participants in full gear and breathing air complete several events that are job specific; charged hose pull, ladder raise, hit a tire with a sledgehammer, crawl through a search course, etc... Have the participants perform the course long enough to become fatigued, then have them practice the skills you actually want them to learn such as RIT bag connections, the waist belt conversion, and Mayday radio procedures to name a few. Add in confusion by having loud radio traffic from an incident playing in the background. Put them under the clock, timing their scenario. Even if you only add in a single element I have mentioned, you have gone heads above what the average training session does. Important to mention is that a credible person leading the drill leads from the front, so ensure you are capable of doing what you require of others. The best way to prove your capability is to participate as well! Do not forget to explain the reasoning behind the set up of the drill so that those firefighters taking part in it do not get the impression that you are arbitrarily making them work with no end goal.
We cannot match the fire ground completely in our training, yet we should strive to make every training scenario as reality based as possible. Replicating fear on the fire ground will be nearly impossible; however, we can recreate conditions that lead to a fearful response. When fatigue, confusion, decreased mobility, zero visibility, and disorientation are included into a scenario, the drill becomes more representative of the conditions that we will encounter in a worst-case fire ground scenario. The importance of realistic training will pay off large dividends when conditions deteriorate and that training is required for firefighter survival. Fear has the ability to bring out many responses in human behavior, and your response will depend upon what level of preparation you have attained. The body’s response to fear has a very wide range, from inaction or irrational behavior on one end of the spectrum to calm recognition and a trained response on the other end. Our duty as firefighters is to prepare our minds and bodies to act in calm and collected manner at all times, giving us the luxury of returning home at the end of each tour.