Are You Mentally Ready for the Challenge?


The alarm sounds, sirens blare, diaphones blast, bells and gongs ring, pagers activate, and text messages on cell phones come to life! We drop what we are doing at the moment and come rushing to the firehouse by car or by foot. Gearing up and jumping on the rigs, we head out to the alarm no matter the time of day, rain or shine. This is the home response of the quintessential volunteer firefighter.

You may recall that in the movie Backdraft, Stephen McCaffery tells his brother Brian, “You have a bad day here, someone dies!” This may be a case of Hollywood dramatics at its best, but it has some truth to it. You never know when it’s your department’s turn for bad stuff to happen. There’s no way around it; it’s going to happen at some point, and when it does, we owe it to our fellow firefighters, our families, and the public to bring our “A” game every time we head toward the rig and an alarm.

We often speak about a firefighter’s physical conditioning and well-being before the alarm sounds, but how about the mental well-being of an individual running for the door? How often do we think about the mindset of volunteer firefighters and what they may be involved with prior to the alarm sounding? How are the outside factors and pressures a volunteer firefighter may be dealing with at the time of the alarm going to affect the level of concentration and self-discipline needed for the job at hand?

The Mind Is the Most Important “Tool”

Our mind is the most important “tool” in our firefighting “toolbox.” But, think about this: Are things always perfect in your world prior to the alarm sounding? The volunteer firefighter responding from home must change mental gears or “hats” at a moment’s notice. Literally, in six minutes, you may go from an extremely stressful and heated argument with a loved one to deciding how many hose lengths you must pull from the hosebed to make an effective stretch on a fire. A moment’s lapse in judgment because your head is not totally focused on the task can be deadly.

Lessons and Successes from One Fire Department’s Behavioral Health and Wellness Program

Let’s face it. Health, housing, finances, family matters—everyday problems—can seriously impact your mental well-being. Consider one of the following scenarios. You’re sitting down to pay some bills and you discover a sizable amount of money is missing from your checking account. The high school just called to advise you that your son has been cutting class. Your dog died. Or, one of many other stressful events could be playing itself out when the alarm sounds and you are alerted for a call. Can you do a personal “size-up” of yourself in this instance and have the self-discipline to forget what may be immediately stressful in your world at that time and focus on your responsibilities as a firefighter, an officer, or a chief?

Conversely, our career counterparts report for a scheduled shift and are immersed in the firefighter role for their entire on-duty time. They are not changing hats, roles, and environments as volunteer firefighters do. I’m not saying career firefighters will not experience stressful events during their shift; but, for the most part, they are removed from the stressful situations and pressures of their civilian world. As a volunteer firefighter, your role of “on-duty” firefighter and that of civilian can be flip-flopping all day long.

Each day has its share of ups and downs, and how a person deals with these bumps in the day varies greatly among individuals. Fortunately, most bumps can be easily shrugged off as a normal part of your day. But, other times, the bumps are much more serious. These bumps may be part of an event that will cause someone’s mind to linger on a certain situation or event all day long and seriously affect concentration and judgment on the fireground. Your day as a volunteer firefighter may have you switching hats all day long and revisiting the stressful environment or event multiple times during the day. Keeping a clear head for firefighting duties will be a challenge.

Honestly Size Up Self and Others

Most firefighters have an aggressive mindset, and this leads us sometimes to think we are indestructible and can handle any challenge. But, sometimes forces beyond our control are going to make things very rough for us. As tough as it may be, we must also be responsible enough to know when to sit one out and not respond. Conduct a personal “size-up” of yourself. Be honest: Are you going to be able to handle what’s coming at you and your responsibilities to carry out your sworn duties?

As an officer, how do you know the mindset of your people before the alarm sounds? Crew members run into the station, and away you go. Any signs that a person may not be mentally ready for the challenge ahead are covered up by the orchestrated chaos of the response. Good officers learn the strengths and weaknesses of their people. They learn the personalities of their members. Over time, they know who’s the prankster, who’s the serious one, who’s the pot stirrer, and so on. Don’t be afraid to pull someone aside and ask if anything is wrong if you sense the person is not acting like his normal self.

Officers may also have to be prepared to “size up” an individual and ask someone to sit out an alarm. This may be uncomfortable, but officers owe it to the other members of the crew.

I can recall telling my officers during a meeting in preparation for an upcoming hurricane to keep their eyes on their crews—not only physically but also mentally. Keep an eye out for someone who may be reaching a tipping point emotionally. We were going to be on a departmentwide standby, working through the night, with downed trees and power lines in blackout conditions. It was imperative to have crews focus 100 percent on the task at hand. We all had concerns for our families and homes, but we also had a job to do, and the job had to be done. I told them it was okay to send someone home if they could not give it their all. In the end, this was the safest scenario for all concerned.

As with many actions on the fireground, it comes down to an individual’s self-discipline. Can you size up yourself and put to the back of your mind whatever may be stressing you when the alarm sounds and focus on your firefighter role and tasks 100 percent? It is not as easy as it may seem.

MICHAEL CAPOZIELLO is a 34-year member and former chief of the Elmont (NY) Fire Department. He is a department training officer, a public information officer, and an historian. He is also a supervising dispatcher at Nassau County (NY) Fire Communications FIRECOM and the training officer on the field com unit. He has been a member of the Nassau County fire service critical incident stress management team for the past 16 years.


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