Scott Kraut: Modern Training Techniques for Tactical Success

BY SCOTT KRAUT

In the fire service, we tend to put a lot of stock in our equipment–many times, rightfully so. Knowing our equipment makes us stewards of the profession and will keep us safe. Understanding which bar or hook is right for which application is synonymous with a butcher’s choosing the right knife for the cut of meat. There are tangible devices, such as our personal protective gear, portable radios, and self-contained breathing apparatus, that we must master to assist us in an unfortunate event. However, there are many more intangible items that will save us not only in an emergency, but also possibly in our everyday lives. We all understand the importance of training and exercise to improve our performance on the job; a bit more unorthodox is the emphasis being placed on how we train mentally for the fireground. Before you turn the page thinking this is some psycho-babble nonsense, consider the following scenario.

Scenario

You’re at the firehouse and have just put your head on the pillow after the 13th run of the day. Before you get a chance to get into a deep sleep, the bells ring for a structure fire in your first-due response area. While bounding from your rack, you try to make sense of your surroundings and process the dispatch information: address, type of structure, people trapped, and so on. You make your way across the apparatus floor and begin to dress out, ensuring that your gear is tightened up correctly. As the apparatus door rises and you hop in the right front seat of the apparatus, you notice a blanket of snow on the ground, making this event potentially more hazardous. All of this has occurred in less than two minutes, and there is even more to process as you weave your way to the incident address.

Have we prepared our officers and firefighters to adequately process this information and make sound decisions? If you answered yes because you have a well-developed incident simulation program, I would argue that the program does not include the mental, physical, and environmental stressors that we face individually.

We have spent hours discussing the curvature of the forks on the halligan bar, and my department has invested countless dollars on props for forcible entry to improve members’ forcible entry skills. This is a very important part of our job, but it is only one small component of the bigger picture, and we spend so much time and effort training for it. How much time do we invest in our mental preparedness or discussing ways to train our mind and body to work together? I would venture to say most of us don’t invest that much effort, if we even think about it at all. From the physiology side of things, our brain controls every single action or inaction our body carries out, and it is part of the central nervous system for a reason. How can we ignore this critical component in our training regimen?

This may sound daunting at first, but think about how the fire service has adopted a wellness initiative that most of us adhere to and how that tasted at first. We have only one more link to incorporate into our wellness programs to make them complete. That is brain health and training. Let’s look at how all this comes together.

The fire service has come a long way toward recognizing the correlation between physical fitness and our performance on the fireground. If you look at the tasks we perform on the fireground, you can rightfully refer to us as industrial athletes. That being said, we must determine what it is then that makes athletes so successful in their particular sports. Athletes spend countless hours, as we do, training for their event whether it be Sunday’s big game or the Olympic spotlight, but those athletes who win draw a distinct contrast between themselves and their competitors–that is mental preparation. Lanny Bassham, an Olympic rifleman who developed the Mental Management System, says, “The top five percent of professional athletes agree that elite performance is 90 percent mental.”  So is it possible then to train firefighters not only to prepare physically, but also mentally for the fireground, as athletes prepare for the “big game.”

With the support of our Chief Richie Bowers, we have developed a creative and proven approach to training firefighters so that they are mentally prepared and have the tools and motivation to stay prepared. The key to our success is Repetitions (REPS) and Stress Exposure Training Scenarios (SETS). Most of us are familiar with a typical bodybuilding or workout routine that revolves around sets and reps. Sets are the number of times a series of repetitions must be performed to complete an exercise; the reps are the number of times an individual movement will take place during one set. This has been a standard for bodybuilders for decades. We adopted it for our training program with some variance. REPS are done with an understanding of muscle fiber types in mind. More REPS are used to develop Type I muscle fibers (slow twitch) that are endurance based and delay fatigue.

Think of how many times you drive to the firehouse. If you think about the drive, there is typically nothing that stands out. You have driven that route so often that it becomes muscle memory along with every aspect of driving your car (starting it, putting it in gear, and so on).  We have committed the route and every action involved in getting there to memory, and it becomes second nature. The same is true for REPS in our training, but the REP must be performed over and over until the skill is mastered and then practiced periodically. Now we are ready for the SETS.

STRESS

We all understand stress in that everyone has experienced it to some extent in their personal lives in the fast-paced world we live in.  Without getting too deep into the psychology and physiology of stress, let’s take a look at what it means to firefighters.  Stress carries a negative connotation, but it is a normal and even healthy response to a stressor, as it is the trigger that tells the brain to release chemicals to prepare the body for an attack. A simple example would be that feeling you have after an animal or a person jumps into the road in front of you as you are driving. Once the event is over, you feel as if your heart sank into your stomach. What actually happened in a matter of seconds is that your body prepared you for impact by dilating your eyes to see more and releasing the chemicals cortisol, epinephrine (adrenaline), and norepinephrine into the body.  Instantly, the heart beats faster, blood pressure increases, senses sharpen, a rise in glucose invigorates us, and we are ready to go. The feeling after the fact is exhaustion as a result of the released chemicals. Depending on an individual’s exposure to certain aspects of the job, the event described above happens on some level to every person at every incident. The key to training is to understand that it’s going to happen and learn how to deal with it so that it doesn’t cause a disruption in the thought process and lead to bad decision making.

To adopt this form of preparation into a training program that already exists, there has to be a tiered system that guides the trainee to success.  A simple approach would look like Table 1.

Table 1. Forcible Entry Tasks and Level of Stress

Levels

Task (Conventional one/firefighter forcible entry)

Stress Involvement

1

Lecture and hands on explaining the tools and how and why they work.

No stress

2

Instruction at a door prop and/or an actual door

No stress

3

Work the door in structural gear, self-contained breathing apparatus, and gloves on [full personal protective equipment (PPE)]

Low Stress

4

Work the door in full PPE, but tighten the area to simulate a basement walkout, and add theatrical smoke.

Moderate Stress

5

Work the door as above, but add the pressure of a hose team and potential victims trapped. Increase the distractors by adding noise and frustration.

High Stress

Note: This forcible entry example illustrates the possibilities of REPS and SETS training. This system has been applied to firefighter safety and survival and to command competency training. Understanding how the brain works and how we respond as individuals to the stressors of our environment allows us to stimulate firefighters to perform well under stress. The key is to be aware that the stress is normal and is to be expected but that you can learn how to control it and use it to your advantage. With all of the disciplines today’s firefighters are expected to be proficient in, there is a need to explain to our members the coping mechanisms in each discipline.

The goal is to master the fundamentals and successfully complete each level prior to advancing.  We must be very delicate when pushing people to the limit; therefore, there is no room in this type of training environment for failure, but that isn’t to say it’s a “no child left behind approach.”  The student will understand that it is our duty as fire service instructors to ensure that they are completely prepared to move forward, because when the stressors begin to appear, there is no instruction–only positive reinforcement and a reminder that they have the mental and physical tools to accomplish the task. Throughout the SETS, the student achieves the reps or muscle memory component and, as a result, has mastered that area of performance. This type of training must continue on a regular basis to ensure mastery, but it is an excellent foundation for each task we perform on the fireground.

 

 

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