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Physical strength, mental toughness and moral focus: Your personal 360

Conduct a personal 360 size-up to evaluate how your behavior contributes to the success of the mission


There are common threads to operational and mortal issues affecting the fire service and firefighter growth and development. Similar to the operational 360 that we should all be using to size-up fire scenes, let's take a look at our own personal 360.

I’m not talking about walking around your fire truck or looking at yourself in a mirror ... well, at least not literally.

When you conduct that operational 360, you’ve got several priorities – first and foremost being obvious rescues and your own safety, fire conditions, access points, access impediments, construction type, etc.

Your personal 360 involves a paradigm I’ll call the success tetrahedron (ST). To explain, the ST begins with the tetrahedron base – your mission success. The three pillars – physical strength, mental toughness and moral focus – form the sides.

I’m quite sure you’ve witnessed successful and not-so successful demonstrations of the ST in your own evaluation of folks in our business.

The key to forward improvement is getting the not-so successful among us to take that introspective look at themselves, before they’re in trouble.

The personal 360 requires a wholistic look at each of the three pillars of the ST and how they each support the mission. Much like chair legs, you take one away, and the chair is going to fail.

1. Physical strength

Physical strength involves much more than just being able to lift weight. Physical strength manifests in your complete physical and nutritional balance that helps to power through business and stay healthy.

I suspect it is easy to look around your own department and find both positive and poor examples of the physical strength pillar. We have a responsibility to each other and to our communities to support a physical training and nutritional program that promotes health and well-being that should be the standard for public safety professionals (paid or volunteer), not the exception.

Does your organization provide the mechanical and administrative support to make fitness and nutrition programs sustainable? Do you promote peer fitness programs that encourage crew participation and personal support? Does your fitness program promote cardiovascular, resistance and flexibility exercises? Do you support nutritional balance and provide guidance through a peer fitness program?

I fully support the concepts of NFPA 1582: Standard on Comprehensive Occupational Medical Program for Fire Departments, and NFPA 1583: Standard on Health-Related Fitness Programs for Fire Department Members standards. However, I also recognize the fiscal constraints facing many of our departments, making full implementation of health and wellness programs easy political chopping block items. We can’t accept the status quo here folks – take a look around, failure in this pillar of the tetrahedron is killing more of our folks than traditional line of duty deaths.

There are a myriad of resources available. A joint Labor/Management Health and Wellness Initiative effort between the IAFC and the IAFF is an important step in the right direction. The National Volunteer Fire Council Heart Healthy Firefighter program is also a valuable tool for the volunteer side of our house. You can also download the United States Sport and Spine Foundation (USSFF) “Firefighter’s Guide to Health and Wellness” pamphlet and a study about improving firefighter health and wellness.

2. Mental toughness

The next pillar of your ST is mental toughness. To be clear, “toughness” here should not be translated as “suck it up buttercup!” Mental toughness refers to a heightened state of awareness and capacity to process and manage the multitude of business-related assaults on our senses.

As reported previously, a 2017 study found nearly 20 percent more firefighters committed suicide than were killed in the line of duty. Post-traumatic stress and related suicides are a significant issue currently facing us in the fire service. Nearly 25 percent of firefighters have admitted to planning suicide, and many more have likely gone undetected.

It is worth repeating that the social stigmas and artificial barriers we put up when discussing mental acuity are barriers to improving mental toughness. Talk to your people, and when you notice changes or see something unusual, say something. You’re going to see and deal with a lot out there. Combined with all the pressures of your personal life, I should remind you that none of us is Superman.

3. Moral focus

Most difficult of the ST pillars to analyze and improve is moral focus. Moral courage is harder to muster than physical courage – most of us have demonstrated the physical courage to run into a burning building whenever needed.

However, we have also demonstrated poor moral focus on a daily basis, as prominently displayed frequently in media headlines. “Arrest,” “pedophile”, “drunken rage,” “domestic violence,” “heroin abuse,” “felony theft;” all firefighter headlines I’ve found just in the past few weeks. Only you can regulate your personal moral compass to point you forward towards successful outcomes.

Within the moral focus pillar are four sub categories to help build a solid moral compass: compassion, wisdom, respect and integrity. These are basic tenants of a civil society that unfortunately seem to elude our grasp from time to time.

Beyond the sense of basic civil acts, let me remind you that we are public safety officials, placing us on a higher moral trust pedestal and making us more prominent targets. I don’t decry that fact; I embrace and accept that the public’s trust is a solemn responsibility for every one of us. We see people at their darkest moments, who have the expectation that we uphold the highest moral and ethical standards.

As leaders, we need to set the example – look in our own mirrors and make sure we are above reproach. If you’re not, it’s likely time to move on. You must be able to lead yourself before you can expect to lead others. Doing the right thing might hurt, but doing the right thing will always be right.

Take the time now to evaluate yourself. Your personal 360 should be a continuous process of self-evaluation and improvement. It’s OK to make mistakes and it’s OK that none of us are perfect, but would your grandmother be happy with what she sees in your behavior?

I encourage you to routinely evaluate your personal 360. For our missions to be successful, it will indeed be critical for us to maintain premium levels of physical strength, mental toughness and moral focus. Without those, we’re just another citizen. Be safe, take care and stay smart.

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