Training for firefighter mental resilience

Teaching firefighters to overcome the stresses of the job is just as important as hose drills


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By Eric Brenneman, contributor, In Public Safety and senior curriculum advisor, Yoga For First Responders® (YFFR)®

When I was a company officer at West Des Moines (Iowa) Fire Department, it became clear that my crew had to learn basic skills before moving on to advanced tasks. Advanced tasks included a regimen of drills involving bunker gear turnout, self-contained breathing apparatus, ladder-carrying, driving assessments, medic skills, public education, and drills for every chapter in the International Fire Service Training Association’s Essentials textbook. Mastering such tasks requires consistent, disciplined practice.

Yet, where were the drills to make sure my firefighters were taking care of themselves? Where were the drills to make sure they were of sound mind to do the job? Where were the drills to help them sleep at night? Where were the drills to ensure they could transition from call to call, or, even more importantly, from work to home? Where were the skills for mental resilience?

When it comes to taking care of our own, reacting is not enough. To be the best responders possible, we need to include proactive stress management strategies. We need to work on building mental resilience. (Photo/DoD)
When it comes to taking care of our own, reacting is not enough. To be the best responders possible, we need to include proactive stress management strategies. We need to work on building mental resilience. (Photo/DoD)

Firefighters need more mental health resources

We have all heard the statistics regarding mental health in the fire service. Too many members are drinking themselves out of a job, too many families are getting destroyed by the job, too many firefighters are committing suicide. An article from USA Today found that in 2017, 103 firefighters died from suicide versus 93 in the line-of-duty. What are we doing to address these issues within our firefighter culture?

There are some great resources that can help firefighters in times of need:

  • Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) program. When I started in the fire service, there was a lot of focus on CISM. After going on a bad run, we would have a group discussion with a counselor. While this provided a safe space to decompress, nobody wanted to look weak in front of the senior guys.
  • Employee assistance program (EAP). The EAP contact number was posted on the wall in all of our stations. I also had it in my phone when I got promoted so that I could give it to members of my crew if they reached out. However, many firefighters lack trust in the confidentiality of this system and are concerned that information they disclose could make its way to leadership, ultimately jeopardizing their jobs. 
  • Peer support. Peer support involves building a network of peers within the department who have been specially trained in answering calls for assistance from other members within the organization. It is a great resource to help take care of our brothers and sister, but it takes someone to set it up, train other peer-support members, and continually run the program.

While all these resources have the potential to be helpful and beneficial to firefighters, they all share one common flaw: they are all reactive approaches.

The fire service has long been reactive; that’s what we do. A member of the public gets in trouble, calls 911, and we react. But when it comes to taking care of our own, reacting is not enough. To be the best responders possible, we need to include proactive stress management strategies. We need to work on building mental resilience.

Building mental resilience through yoga

Mental resilience does not develop from one-time instruction. It is accomplished by way of daily concerted application. David Goggins, a retired United States Navy SEAL and former United States Air Force Tactical Air Control Party member, states, “mental toughness is not a class, rather a daily discipline that must be practiced or it will be lost.” The good news is that there is a warrior training methodology that has been in existence for more than 5,000 years.

It has the ability to process stress while building mental resilience, enhancing job performance, and improving physical functioning. It can produce elite firefighters, and can even save your department money (there is emerging research from Australia on the cost benefit of proactive emphasis on mental health. A study done in New South Wales showed a $13 to $1 return on investment when public safety entities expended funds for the mental wellbeing of their responders). That training methodology just happens to be yoga.

There is more misconception about yoga within our first responder culture than in most. It is not about touching your toes, it is not about living in yoga pants, it is not about drinking pumpkin spiced lattes. At its core, yoga is about training elite warriors. As former Navy SEAL Mark Divine stated, “A warrior must be skilled in action and non-action alike.” 

Yoga provides mental health benefits, physical benefits, and even proactively trains the mind to process stress. We are actually already teaching the essence of yoga to our members but using different terminology, unaware that we are conveying the yogic concept. When I started acting as a company officer, I had a senior officer tell me that when things are going sideways you need to get your stuff together, stop, take a deep breath, reassess the situation, and get to work. Little did he know that advice was actually a foundational teaching of yoga. Our breath connects our mind and our body, it can make us present and aware, and it can enhance situational awareness. One conscious breath is all it takes.

Complete yoga combines breath and movement

When breath is combined with movement, it is complete yoga. Yoga is not complicated. It can be done in the gym, in the rig between calls, and in the locker room before or after a shift. It can be used to get ready for action or to regulate after action. The movement does not have to be touching your toes or wrapping your foot around your head. It can simply be moving your spine in coordination with breath.

Yoga can be drilled just as you drill other Firefighter 1 skills. It can be drilled before the bad call happens and in retirement when there is risk of losing your sense of identity and community. It can be drilled individually or as a crew, day or night.

There are already yoga-specific programs built for the fire service and first responders. As a former company officer, I saw the benefits of those programs in my crew firsthand. I challenge you as a leader looking out for your membership to think differently and investigate the benefits of culturally appropriate yoga for first responders. If such proactive drills are not already in your department, I leave you with this: Why not?

About the author

Eric Brenneman is proud to serve as senior advisor, ambassador, and squad leader for the non-profit organization, Yoga For First Responders. Eric has been practicing yoga regularly since 2017, attending studios throughout the country. He is a former lieutenant with the West Des Moines (Iowa) Fire Department.

Prior to promotion, Eric spent many years in leadership positions with IAFF L-3586 and the Iowa Association of Professional Firefighters. Eric served in the fire service for 13 years. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from the University of Iowa and a Master’s of Public Administration from the University of North Dakota. To reach him, email IPSauthor@apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.

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