Stress Inculcation in Firefighter Training

By David Werner

It is no secret that our job can be very stressful, but the fact is the stressors we deal with today were the same stressors firefighters dealt with 50 years ago. The equipment and scenarios may look different, but the same problems continue to plague us and will continue to do so in the future.

Although we will never be able to remove the stressors we encounter on the emergency scene, we do have control over how we prepare ourselves. Training is the key to ensuring adequate response under stress. When we are thrust into chaotic situations, we revert back to our most basic levels of training to survive. Unfortunately, our training does not tend to adequately prepare us to work in the stressful environments we find ourselves in. Inculcation of stress into training is the only way to adequately prepare firefighters for the real-world stress we will encounter.

In Warfighting; The U.S. Marine Corps Book of Strategy, war is defined as encompassing seven characteristics: friction, uncertainty, fluidity, disorder, the human dimension, violence and danger, and moral and physical forces. These characteristics apply quite readily to the situations firefighters encounter and must be woven into our training to ensure we will respond appropriately.


Friction refers to the inherent difficulties firefighters face on scene. There are many factors working against us in everything we do. Getting a crew on a rig and dressed out at three in the morning takes effort. That same crew now sitting at a railroad crossing, waiting for a slow- moving freight train to clear, soaks up valuable time. Do you ever have those days where nothing is going right? That is friction working against you. Much the same way unoiled gears move slowly and noisily, so will events on the emergency scene when the deck is stacked against us.

Friction in training is fairly easy to accomplish. The use of any type of obstacle will produce friction. During a search drill, one member may be given a self-contained breathing apparatus with only a quarter of a tank. The sounding of the low-air alarm earlier than expected will cause friction. If a crew is training with search lines, inform them that the line has been removed from its anchor point and is now loose in the building; a crew deep inside of a structure without a trustworthy means of retracing their steps is now experiencing friction. This will teach the individuals to not rely solely on the search rope for orientation. When friction is introduced in training, decisions will be made under less-than-ideal conditions, providing valuable lessons for all those involved.

One caveat: Any “friction” introduced into training must not endanger the trainee (like running out of air in an Immediately Dangerous to Life or Health environment, etc.)

Uncertainty is always working against us on the fire ground. When firefighters arrive on scene, we never know exactly what to expect. Even the most obvious and seemingly simple scenes can instantly become the call we will remember for the rest of our lives. How often do you hear someone talk about pulling up on the “nothing showing” call only to find themselves battling a raging inferno a few minutes later? It is impossible to know everything that is happening and will happen when we arrive. It is crucial that we learn how to deal with that uncertainty and learn to work within it instead of fighting it. Hesitating and deliberating as we strain to get an all-knowing picture of the situation will only lead to increased losses.

Uncertainty in training can be accomplished through withholding of information. Show crews a picture of a structure, but only give them a few seconds to view the picture. Now fabricate a scenario involving the structure and have individuals walk through their decisions. After everyone answers, take time to discuss the decisions, and what the outcome of those decisions would have been. This will help to encourage decisiveness and confidence in decision making.

Fluidity refers to the ever-changing environment of the fireground. From the moment the fire first ignites, the scene is constantly evolving and changing in size and scope. It is only through interventions such as suppression efforts, changes in available fuel, or changes in the ventilation profile that there will be a conclusion to the series of events. Fluidity is the reason why tunnel vision can be so dangerous and detrimental to firefighting operations. If we focus on only one aspect or operation, we will quickly be left behind. In the same way that a hunter aiming a shotgun must lead his target, we must constantly be thinking ahead and anticipating future events.

Fluidity can be introduced in training through unexpected changes in assignments. An example would be tasking an engine crew with advancing an attack line into a structure for an interior attack. As the team advances, signal an evacuation and have the team leave the building. As the team exits and a personnel accountability report (PAR) is completed, advise the team that defensive operations will be initiated and a portable monitor/master stream needs to be established. This change in operation will cause the team to completely switch gears in their minds. Their focus will roll through advancing an attack line, recognizing and acting on an evacuation order, accomplishing a PAR check, and then initiating defensive operations. Do not expect this type of drill to be performed perfectly at first. This type of drill places a huge mental and physical load on a crew which takes time to evolve. Over time, this type of decisive change in operations will pose no issue to crews.

Disorder is present in almost everything we do. It seems that the more time and energy we spend on perfecting an event, the higher the guarantee that complete disarray will be the result. The fireground over flows with disorder, from the frantic homeowner on the phone with dispatch resulting in an incorrect address, to the freight train which delays crews from reaching the scene. We will never be able to eliminate disorder from our operations; The key is to put into place tools and training which prepares us to deal with it.

Disorder can be introduced during training by disrupting the normal flow of events. Some examples:

  • During an interior drill, pull a member aside, take their radio from them, hide them in a corner, activate their PASS device, and wait to see what happens.
  • If stretching charged lines, before the drill begins place a section of hose in the line with a hole in it. Advise the apparatus operator ahead of time so minimal pressure is put on the line. When the line is stretched and water called for, watch what happens when the crew realizes they have a burst section to replace.
  • After stretching lines into the drill building, once water is flowing, inform the apparatus operator that they have lost their water supply. Watch to see if they take the appropriate steps at the pump panel, along with making the appropriate notifications to the interior crews and the incident commander.

Any obstacle or malfunction which catches crews off guard while training will help them learn to anticipate and work through disorder. We need to learn to not lose our heads when things go awry. Things will go wrong, and they will go wrong at the worst time possible. Be prepared.

The human dimension refers “to the complexities, inconsistencies, and peculiarities which characterize human behavior” (Warfighting), and plays a crucial role in firefighting. How are you feeling today? Are you tired or rested? Content or restless? Full of aches and pains from that pick-up game of basketball? Distracted by home life? We cannot expect ourselves or anyone else to remain in a constant state of 100-percent readiness and focus. There will always be factors and variables working against us. Again, the key is to recognize those factors and variables, learn how they affect us and our crews, and determine how to work with and around them.

Our work involves operating in less than ideal conditions. Summer heat, the cold of winter, sleep deprivation, hunger, and sheer exhaustion are all issues we battle. Our customers expect us to be able to operate with proficiency and efficiency regardless of operating conditions. Through intense training we can learn to cope with these factors. Although it is not advisable to train to the point of complete exhaustion, use training that pushes us out of our comfort zone. This may mean gathering your crew for a full personal protective equipment (PPE) search drill just prior to supper time. Stomachs will be rumbling, but it is important to be able to focus on the task at hand. Take advantage of a cold, blustery day to work practice setting up rope rescue systems. Hands will be cold, but we need to be able to build hauling and lowering systems despite the cold. Working in blistering heat needs to be done cautiously, but is still important to accomplish. By training in less-than-ideal conditions we can expect to perform in the same conditions when the time comes.

Although violence and danger may not always be present, it is a fact that the tasks which we engage in are inherently dangerous. Operating in a burning building is not a safe venture. Extricating a patient from a mangled vehicle on a busy interstate is not safe. Performing a high-angle rescue on slippery and rough terrain is not safe. Firefighters must acknowledge the inherent danger in these operations and determine what we can do to increase our chances of survival. We will never completely eliminate the violent and dangerous aspects of our job, and attempting to do so only places us at a disadvantage. What we can do is prepare ourselves to operate within the danger and constantly evaluate our positions. A heads-up operating stance is vital to our survival.

Training, unlike the fireground, is the place where we can control the level of danger we are exposed to. Through careful approximation of real-world environments, we can simulate the danger we will encounter on the fireground and learn how to cope with it. Floor collapse simulators are an excellent example of drills which simulate danger and teach us how to deal with the effects. By the same token, ceiling collapse props teach us how to remain calm in these situations and what methods of extraction are most effective. Multi-company live-burn drills let us practice how to weave together multiple areas of operation. These drills also allow us to practice the communication and organization which is required to keep ourselves from being in dangerous spots we don’t need to be in. Effective debriefs after such drills will reinforce the decisions and tactics, helping improve survivability.

Moral and physical forces are intertwined in everything we do. Moral forces may be more difficult to define, but are readily recognizable. The cohesiveness of a crew is an excellent example of moral force. When a crew has a strong leader, a strong sense of purpose, and a high level of proficiency, they will be readily capable of operating at a high level. If these ingredients are lacking or absent, it will be difficult to accomplish even the most basic tasks. Physical forces can be broken down to the simple terms of physical readiness and ability. If we lack the physical capacity to accomplish fireground tasks, we place ourselves and our coworkers at great and unnecessary risk. No one needs a reminder of the constant problem of physical condition and fitness in the fire service.

Crew cohesiveness is only obtained through training that allows the crew to accomplish tasks together. The quality and comprehensiveness of this training is vital to reaching the desired results. This is where challenging training becomes beneficial. When a crew is faced with a difficult task that tests their abilities, they are required to dig deep. Failure at first should not be treated as defeat. Attempts should be analyzed to figure out what broke down, why it broke down, and what can be done differently. It is through this process and further attempts that cohesion will be gained. As crews go through this process, the benefits will manifest themselves through increased confidence, less hesitation in acting, increased morale, and an overall higher level of performance. This is what all training should strive to produce.

Physical readiness is an obvious requirement of our job. The fireground demands physical strength and endurance. Showing up for battle without being physically prepared is a guarantee that injuries and perhaps deaths will occur. The stress of the job and its physical demands can take a tremendous toll on us. The only way we can prepare for these demands is through physical training and conditioning. Obviously an effective workout routine is required. If you are lucky, your department has a physical fitness program. If it hasn’t, do what needs to be done to get such a program in place. Working out, however, is only the first step. Our training needs to be physically demanding. This means wearing full PPE and performing the same functions we would normally perform on the fireground. Using the 16-foot roof ladder for training instead of the 24-foot extension ladder is cheating yourself. Advancing a dry line for engine company drills is not properly simulating the demands of advancing a charged line. Training that pushes our physical limits by using the same equipment and activities we perform on the fireground is the only way to reach a proper level of readiness.

Take a hard look at the type of training your department performs. Are you merely going through the paces, a sort of checklist-type of training? Too often we find ourselves practicing skills in ideal, clean, and tightly controlled environments. As we have learned, the fireground lacks these characteristics. We are constantly fighting friction, uncertainty, fluidity, disorder, the human dimension, violence and danger, and moral and physical forces. These are characteristics which we will never be able to remove from the fireground. They are evident in the past and present and we will face them in the future. The only means of increasing our chances of survival is through the inculcation of these characteristics into training. It is not difficult or expensive to inject this type of realism in training, but it requires chief officers and company officers who recognize the need and instill in their crews the importance of intense and realistic training. Furthermore, when individuals see the benefits of this type of training they will recognize why it is important and begin contributing to the process. Fire departments will recognize the benefits in increased cohesiveness, morale, proficiency, and confidence in decision making.


(1989). Warfighting: The U.S. Marine Corps Book of Strategy. (1st ed.). New York, NY: Currency Doubleday.


A special thanks to Jason Brezler and Leadership Under Fire Inc. for the influence they have had on my fire service pursuits.

David Werner is a firefighter with the Gantt District Fire Department in Greenville, South Carolina. He holds an associate degree in fire science and administration from Lake Superior College. He serves as an instructor with the South Carolina Fire Academy.

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