CrossFit 4 Fire: Pain Threshold Training and Firefighter Survival

By Ed Hadfield

“When a man becomes a fireman, his greatest act of bravery has been accomplished. What he does after that is all in the line of work.” — Chief Edward F. Croker, Fire Department of New York, speaking on the death of a deputy chief and four firefighters in February of 1908

When Chief Croker spoke those words in 1908, he had no idea the influence those words would have on firefighters in 2012. We must recognize that the development of our minds and bodies between incidents is simply in the line of our work. Failing to do so is failing at our profession and letting our fellow firefighters down. The greatest tools we possess in our arsenal is our mind and our bodies; nothing carried on a fire apparatus is more valuable, proficient at work, or more capable of performing at a higher level of efficiency.

Numerous studies conducted in the law enforcement community and in the military special operations arena specifically address the ability of one’s mind to push the body to the most extreme of physical capabilities. Every study has proven that where the mind is strong, the body will follow.

We have all heard about the 90-pound grandma lifting the car off the child and other stories illustrating how people summon superhuman strength in emergencies. There may be no documented cases of that 90-pound grandma lifting a car off a small child, but there are hundreds of documented events in which tactical professionals in law enforcement, special forces, and the fire service have performed at superhuman levels when injured or gravely wounded. The question becomes, “How do we train or inoculate our minds and bodies to such levels of stress where we are capable of operating at a high level given extreme and even life-threatening events or circumstances?” The answer is found in the fundamentals of the CrossFit fitness and conditioning program training. Remember, training must hurt, but training should not injure.

One of the least discussed areas of CrossFit for the fire service athlete is the development of mind confidence while working through the “pain threshold,” which develops mental toughness and unit esprit de corps. Most anyone who has done CrossFit will at one point in time comment on how it never gets easier. In fact, a quote by Coach Greg Glassman, founder of CrossFit, defines it best: “No, it doesn’t ever get any easier. You wouldn’t want it to, either.”

CrossFit conditioning is second to none and cannot be replicated in other types of conditioning programs. Sure, you could go run a marathon and hit the proverbial “wall” at 19 miles. However, doing “Fran,” a specific CrossFit workout, you hit that wall in minutes, not miles and hours.

Pain threshold training develops mental toughness by forcing individuals to work through the self-limiting mental and physical barriers they place upon themselves. The key word here is individual Pain threshold, physical limitations, and barriers are unique with each individual, yet, through continuous stress inoculation developed in the training environment, you can increase your pain threshold while increasing your capacity to maintain physical intensity and performance over time. Pain threshold training shouldn’t be debilitating, but it should push the limits of your capacity to continue to move forward. In doing so, you inevitably will perform at a higher level on the fireground.

Mind development and pain threshold training help firefighters to meet their work conditions: high intensity, heavy load, manual labor in uncommon situation under extreme conditions. This requires us to constantly train our minds and bodies for these regular (and in certain cases, irregular) circumstances. In other words, much to what CrossFit speaks to, “We must prepare our minds and bodies for any incident we may encounter.”

Much of the problem is found in our complete lack of mental preparation for the inevitable. The fire service receives a failing grade in developing its personnel in stress inoculation and training, which mirrors the actual fight. Mental toughness is not something we teach in the fire academy or in any other training program. Some will say our training programs are arduous and difficult or the academy is tough. I will argue that we do nothing to train the mind to fight through the adversity that can lead to our death. which will force us to either live or die. The fire service has few programs that teach us the “will to survive,” nor do we have an established “Survival Creed” which each member commits to memory.

The National Police Officers Survival Creed starts with:

“The will to survive, to survive the attack, must be uppermost in my mind. For the one who lives through a fight is better off than the one who does not. Therefore, preparation and not paranoia is the key to my survival. To survive I must be aware, be alert, be confident, be deceptive, be decisive, and be ready. I must expect the unexpected and do the unexpected.”

 It goes on to say, “Above all, I won’t give up, and I will make it. I will not die in the streets or in an alley or in any other part of the concrete jungle. I will survive; not just by good luck and good fortune, but by my skills.”

The fire service should have a Survival Creed that states the following:

 “I will ready my mind, my body, and those that serve with me to be ultimately prepared for the fight. I will train as though my life depends on it, because it does. I will never be satisfied with what I did yesterday, because today comes, and the dangers of my profession are never at rest. I will never allow doubt or fear to creep into my decision-making process. My thirst for knowledge will be insatiable, my will unbreakable, and my body will be strengthened through the inoculation of battle-hardened physical training. To do the uncommon, commonly well, under uncommon circumstances will be my mantra and to fail will be shameful. I will push through the pain of training as not to let others I serve with down. I will never allow complacency to be part of my vocabulary, as complacency will only affect those I am sworn to protect. I refuse to allow the fireground to take my life, for death will only come at the hands of God, not from the flames of fire.”

Personally, I would rather have a Survival Creed that speaks to our preparation and our absolute will not to ever die in some burning house, basement, or any other place that would take our lives than to go on believing nothing will happen or hoping for the best.  It’s foolish for leaders to believe the myth that under extreme circumstances their firefighters will rise to the occasion. Without preparation that provides for the same physical and metal stressors of the fireground, leaders will find themselves witness to the slaughter of their people.

The Spartans understood and embraced the concept of using hard physical training to develop the mind along with qualities such as discipline, honor, integrity and teamwork. They did not just rely on a good workout to develop their warriors; neither should we. Our goal should be to use physical training to carve out mental toughness and physical preparedness as a body of work, core competency, and an essential requirement to be a member of the fire service.

Colonel B.P. McCoy USMC, identified physical training as a key tool used to develop a strong mind in team training. He describes the total cost of combat and the price paid by all who choose to become a warrior. His methods included instituting positive training examples under the mental and physical stress of battle conditions. Keying in on the effects of situational training, battle drills conducted prior to and during stress inoculation combat drills, he successfully trained his Marines and developed the proper habits that would be the difference between life and death during combat. This was done on a regular basis and typically in situations which taxed his personnel physically until their bodies became so adapted through stress inoculation; the mental and physical stresses were lessened to a tolerable degree.

Team training in a physical sense while patterning a strong will has many benefits that translate to mental toughness, pain threshold development, and physical preparedness. Training with a group of firefighters that shares your thirst for self-mastery is a powerful force. Any time we are forced to operate in the world where we place the welfare of our teammate above our own comfort, we are forced to up our game mentally and physically.

You might ask how and why this must be accomplished. Each member needs to be engaged in increasingly challenging physical events and activities such as strength coordination elements and metabolic conditioning, which presses the participants into increasingly challenging elements of pain threshold endurance. This type of mental and physical team training holds the individual highly accountable while risking exposing weaknesses to the team. In this type of training, the individual is driven to succeed rather than to let teammates down, commonly known as the virtue of shame.

It really doesn’t matter if you did “Fran” in four minutes or 14 minutes, what matters is you did “Fran” and you did it at the highest level of intensity you could muster. You and you alone will know if you have given it your all, and you must live with yourself and that decision. Failure to give it your all is failing yourself and the team. Again, the thoughts or actions of failing the team must be equally as shameful as failing yourself. This team effect and virtue of shame force you to self-evaluate to determine if you are mentally and physically capable of being a member of the team or of the fire service in general.

As a leader, the implementation and use of mental and physical stress inoculation through the use of CrossFit training and pain threshold training as part of your physical fitness activities will help members develop greater awareness, communication, and razor-sharp problem-solving skills while performing under stress. Inevitably, you are developing your mind for the rigors of leadership and as a team member.

Physical preparedness separates those who can and cannot perform the functions of our profession. This is the reason the Navy SEALs mandate that officers undergo the same mental and physical training standards as those of enlisted personnel. Furthermore, during BUD’s training and subsequent higher levels of training activities, officers are held to higher standards and are expected to perform at a higher level both mentally and physically than enlisted personnel.

Unfortunately, it seems that the same standards do not apply to the fire service. Our battle on the fireground is no different from the battle ground of our Special Forces personnel. Our mentality toward preparedness, training, and the adaptation of skill sets required to perform at the highest level should be no different from that of the elite units in the Special Forces community. The only difference between the two groups is our enemy–and in many cases, we know less about our enemy than they do. This places us at greater disadvantage, thus requiring us to perform at a higher level of efficiency while putting forth the same effort in training in preparation for the event.

As we continue to build on a foundation which will increase our overall fitness and conditioning for our profession, we must recognize the importance of identifying those self-limiting factors which hold us back from performing at higher levels. For some it may be strength; others, endurance; and for others, it may be flexibility. No matter what the deficiency, pushing though those barriers starts with the mind–the strongest muscle in the body.

EDWARD HADFIELD has more than 25 years of fire service experience and serves as a division chief. He is a frequent speaker on leadership, sharing his experiences within the fire service, and also with corporate and civic leaders throughout the United States. He created and teaches company officer development programs and is a specialist in truck company operations, firefighter safety and survivability, and mission-focused command tactics. He was the 2004 California Training Officer of the Year. He has developed state and regional truck company academies in California, Washington, and Oregon.


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