Mission Mindset

By Dave LeBlanc
24 November 2022

There are a lot of comparisons drawn between sports and firefighting, the military and firefighting and even garbage men and firefighters.

In some cases these are accurate. In others they don’t quite hit the mark. Why? Because we are engaged in a unique profession. The skills required to accomplish the tasks we face cover a wide breadth and many of those other professions don’t. That’s okay, most of us took this job because of those unique challenges. We didn’t want to do what everyone else did.

Having always been a fan of Andy Fredericks and his quote about how the garbage man doesn’t get excited, I recently heard an interesting perspective about it.  This speaker used to tell Andy that there is a huge difference between coming around the corner and seeing fire showing after 20 false alarms and coming around the corner and seeing a big pile of boxes after 20 times rounding the corner and seeing no trash.  The two are completely different and yes, we will get excited, heart rate will increase, breathing rate increase and hormonal heart rate changes will affect our performance.  Meanwhile the garbage man will probably grumble about having more work to do.  But I believe Andy’s point was that we should expect to see fire on every run.  If we expect it our reaction will be less and we will be able to control our response.  Mental preparation will lead to “not getting excited”.  It will allow us to control our response and function at a much higher level in spite of our biological reactions.  This is the stress inoculation that Colonel Dave Grossman talks about.  This is why Bill Carey coined the phrase “Expect Fire” so many years ago.

Our preparation-to-action ratio will always be or should always be high.  We will spend, over the course of our careers, thousands of hours preparing to advance hoselines, throw ladders, search for victims, ventilate roofs, and operate the pump and aerial.  We will spend far less, depending on where we work, operating at fires. Even when at fires, far less will be spent operating in truly high-risk circumstances.

For the sake of discussion, let’s look at the role of the backup quarterback on any professional football team.  This position prepares, just like the starter, for every single game. They take the snaps, watch the game film, and go over the plays just waiting to be the next man up. They wait for their opportunity and when the time comes they plan to play their best game for the good of the team. 

However, no matter how much they prepare on any given week they will most often spend four hours sitting on the sidelines watching the starting quarterback play the game.  They have to remain focused, tuned into the game, and aware of how the other team is playing, yet in all reality, they will never touch the ball.

We should have the same mindset and the same preparation every time we walk through the firehouse door because maintaining vigilance in an environment that gives us few opportunities to work can be a challenge. Over time a lack of work can dull our senses, lead to complacency, and this is when bad things happen.

Our average day will involve housework, truck checks, and dozens of responses for service that are all important but not often all that challenging.  The fire service has become the go-to agency for so many non-fire related problems that it can be easy to lose focus.  And even when we do go to reported fires, they are often false calls or minor incidents, not requiring much of our skill set to mitigate.

It is easy in this environment to become lazy and complacent. We start taking shortcuts such as not dressing for calls, not donning our SCBA and forgetting to focus our minds on our size-up routine.  Years of lazy repetition and getting away with sloppy shortcuts set us on a course for disaster. It’s rarely one big thing that causes us problems but often many little things.Before we know it, it is too late to recover.

The “it’s just a fire alarm” mindset can be fatal.  Almost all of us have been caught short responding to that same address for that same fire alarm that we have responded to dozens of times before.  Except for that one time it wasn’t another bad detector, but Mrs. Smith in 3C left her chicken soup on while she went to bingo and now her apartment is on fire.  Most of the time we can recover from our lack of preparation and we will get the job done.  It probably won’t be our best effort and we will probably get lucky by not having the holes in our preparation lineup, leading to a bad outcome.  However we have all read line of duty death reports where this wasn’t the case.

Ready, Willing and Able

Much like the backup quarterback we must be ready, willing, and able to do this job.  These three words are the core of our preparation. They are the key to our effectiveness and they are the prevention of our not getting caught short in an incident.

Let’s talk about them in reverse.

To be effective in this profession we must be able to do the job. This is partly mental and partly physical. We must prepare ourselves both ways so we can perform the myriad of tasks we are required to in high-stress, high-risk environments.  Fitness training, eating healthy, proper sleep, training, education and mindset focus are all key components of our being able.  Being able doesn’t stop the day you graduate from the academy or pass your pre-employment physical; it is a constant focus throughout your career.

To be effective in this profession we must be willing. In theory we checked that box when we signed up. We considered the risks, contemplated the rewards, and committed to stand between our fellow citizens and unrestrained fire. We accepted the fact we could get hurt or possibly killed but that our mission required that level of commitment.  We must remain willing throughout our careers.  The risk equation doesn’t change for us after five years, 10 years or 20 years. Over years we gain more experience and know our capabilities better,  but from the first day to the last day we must remain willing to do what it takes to get the job done: extinguish the fire, search for life, and make rescues.

Another place our complacency can get us in trouble is searching.  Without exact data on the number of searches conducted to the number of rescues being made, I would assume, confidently, that we search far more often than we make rescues.  Just based on my limited personal experience, I know that to be true.  The brothers behind the Firefighter Rescue Survey are doing a great job of making the reason for searching clear, and we need to all be looking at the data and making searches a priority.  However, we are also human and searching over and over again with no result can lead us into the complacency trap, which will lead us to miss a victim.  So willing also means that we must remain willing to remain focused and committed to not become complacent and take shortcuts.  Like fire, we should never be surprised when we find a victim.  The phrase “Expect Victims” was born from this mindset many years ago.

Finally, to be effective in this profession we must be ready. Being ready is a matter of mindset. It’s treating each run as if it’s a fire. It’s mentally preparing ourselves every shift, every run and every moment for what the next moment might bring. By being ready we should never be surprised or caught off guard. Our prepared mind will lower our stress level as we enter into increasingly stressful situations.

This cannot be overstated. Having our mission mindset is probably the most important aspect of our jobs. I would argue it is certainly what the public expects from us. It should be what our chiefs expect from us and I hope it’s what our officers and fellow firefighters expect from themselves and us.

We must commit to being ready, to putting our best effort in on every shift and every run.  Being ready is what it takes to get this job done.

Photo courtesy of Unsplash.

Read More from Dave LeBlanc.

Published by Data Not Drama

Data Not Drama is writings that provide a point of critical thought about firefighter fatality data and education, line of duty deaths, and risk. The main focus is to encourage less risk aversion and better knowledge on the subject of firefighter fatalities in firefighters, fire departments, and fire service organizations.

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