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Training Mental Resilience: More Important Than Hose Drills - by Lt. Eric Brenneman (ret.)

Updated: April 30, 2021

As a company officer it became clear that my crew, just as yours, had to learn basic skills before moving on to advanced tasks.

Advanced tasks included practicing knots to PPE turnout drills, SCBA drills, ladder carrying drills, driving assessment drills, drills for EMS, drills for public education, drills for every chapter in the IFSTA Firefighter 1 text book. Mastering such drills 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 for small stabilizing muscles to avoid injury getting off the rig? 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?

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

When I started riding backwards, it was all about post critical incident stress management. Go on a bad run and we would find ourselves in a conference room with a counselor guiding a group discussion, everyone trying not to look too weak in front of the senior guy. The E.A.P. number was 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 a member of my crew if they reached out. Yet how many firefighters actually trust that system isn’t going to make it back to the city? Peer support is a great resource, but it takes someone to set it up, continually run it, and eventually a firefighter may not reach out soon enough. The one common approach of these resources is that they are reactive. The fire service has long been reactive, that’s what we do. Someone gets jammed up, calls 9-1-1 and we react. But when it comes to taking care of our own one could argue we are not advancing. To be the best responders possible, we need to add proactive management, acting in advance to take care of our own. We need to work on mental resilience.

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 (mental as well as physical) warrior training methodology that has been in existence for over 5,000 years. It has the ability to process stress while building mental resilience, enhance job-performance, and improve physical functioning. It can produce elite firefighters, and can even save your department money.** 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 wearing yoga pants, it is not about drinking that pumpkin spiced latte. At its core, pure yoga is about training elite warriors. As Mark Divine, a former Navy SEAL 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, it can enhance situational awareness. One conscious breath is all it takes. (Below is a short video of a breath technique that you can use today to see immediate benefits of this practice.)

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, in the locker room before or after shift. It can be used to get ready for action or regulate after action. The movement does not have to be touching your toes nor 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, drilled before the bad call, drilled in retirement when you lose your sense of identity and community, drilled individually, drilled as a crew, drilled day or night.

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

*USA Today April 11, 2018

**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.

Lancet Psychiatry, October 11, 2017

Written by Lt. Eric Brenneman (ret.), CFO, YogaShield® Yoga For First Responders®

Eric Brenneman is proud to serve as an Advisor for Yoga For First Responders. Eric has been practicing yoga regularly for a little over 2 years attending studios throughout the country. Eric is currently a Regional Account Manager for Streamline Automation Systems. Eric is a former Lieutenant with the West Des Moines Fire Department. Prior to the promotion, Eric spent many years in leadership positions with IAFF L-3586 and the Iowa Association of Professional Fire Fighters. Eric served in the fire service for 13 years. Eric 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. Eric enjoys traveling and hiking around the world.

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