In this series, Fire Engineering Senior Editor Mary Jane Dittmar looks at the things that motivated and inspired instructors to present on their topics at FDIC International 2016. Segments will be posted on a regular basis up to and through the conference, April 18-23.
Palm Beach County, Florida
Monday, April 18, 1:30 p.m.-5:30 p.m.
I almost lost my life to something I was never warned about, I was never prepared for, and I could not identify. I was warned about hazardous materials and the poison in smoke, cancer exposure, how flashover can occur, collapse zones, the death rate at traffic accidents caused by impatient motorists, that heart attacks ravage the fire service, not wearing seat belts kills firefighters, and how fire will make jumping from a window to certain death look like a good idea.
But, I was never warned about the psychological effects of tragedy, death, and the sights of horrific events over a career compounded by personal life injuries and struggles (the murder of a close friend and the suicides of two other friends while I was going through a divorce.)
Although my life was upside down, I couldn’t tell you what was wrong. I had always thought of myself as mentally and physically tough. I successfully completed some very daunting tasks in my life, but now I was left wondering if I ever was good at this job. Maybe I was a fraud. I struggled not to rip off my mask; the thoughts of suffocating permeated my every thought, and tight spaces made me cringe in fear. The thought of impending doom was occasionally interrupted by homicidal thoughts; in the end, it was dominated with suicidal thoughts. Certain sounds, thought, smells, and sights left me in tears. I could not control my emotions. I could not sleep through the night; my anxiety attacks were becoming more and more frequent, and the hyper-vigilance was continuous. I was broken and felt hopeless and desperate. I was utterly defeated and ashamed of my new-found weakness. –
After being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), I sought out ways to get “better.” I was on a mission to be whole again.
Quite by accident, I discovered techniques that worked extremely well to keep my anxiety, intrusive thoughts, and sleeplessness in check. I developed these new techniques and refined them to benefit me further. I was now on a mission. I shamelessly stalked sports and military psychologists about these techniques. I hounded researchers about specific work they had done and even went so far as to visit neurologists just to talk to them about the way the brain works.
I began to make a slow, methodical recovery. My confidence returned, my training ramped up, and I surpassed old benchmarks to ‘prove myself to myself.’
This final process in my recovery led me to develop the training model for Tactical Resiliency Training LLC.
I recognized how much of the fire training I had been through as a rookie and well into my career could be improved. The technique I had learned to overcome my brokenness worked extremely well in training. These techniques are used in sports, the military, and law enforcement; but it took the help of many subject matter experts to incorporate them into firefighting.
These techniques were not exactly in the mainstream in the fire service. It takes time to change a culture that embraces tradition as the fire service does. Even now, much is made of resiliency, but few people apply it properly to fire training and understand the implications of delivering drills/evolutions in a manner that creates more resilient firefighters.
The focus of the class is to deliver training with a concentration on resiliency so that firefighters’ careers are extended and they transition into retirement as damage-free as possible. This type of training necessitates a complete change in mindset, techniques, and performance. Moreover, it can change your life, as it did mine.
The most significant feedback I have received from students revolves around their struggles with PTSD. Even the most hardened firefighter sheds a tear when speaking with me after class; many are speaking for the first time about their “secret.” The pain many of our brothers and sisters are walking around with is astonishing.
The breathing and mental toughness techniques of the class attract students’ interest and prompt inquiries. Instructors have been impressed by how transferring “the origins of reactions” and incorporating the senses to promote resiliency the fireground help firefighters on and off the job. Perhaps the greatest effect this class has on students is helping them to understand that they are normal; their reactions are normal responses to abnormal situations; and that to a certain extent, we are all broken. Our salvation is in knowing that together we can accomplish what we cannot do alone. That is the true meaning of brotherhood.