How to maintain mental strength and focus in times of crisis

A personal tetrahedron can help firefighters maintain mental focus during the COVID-19 national emergency


Bringing calm to chaos really is our true business trademark.

Managing this chaos is a chief’s artwork in continuous motion.

Under normal circumstances, we have training, experience, history and documentation on our side. But we are not facing normal circumstances right now.

It is important for each of us to maintain a personal tetrahedron that uses our core mission – service – as its base, along with physical strength, moral focus and mental toughness. (Photo/Marc Bashoor)
It is important for each of us to maintain a personal tetrahedron that uses our core mission – service – as its base, along with physical strength, moral focus and mental toughness. (Photo/Marc Bashoor)

The onset of COVID-19 was created within the community a physical and psychological reaction akin to preparing for hurricanes and snowstorms. The masses ran to the grocery store and bought up all the bread, milk and toilet paper.

Physiologically, the adrenaline-driven store fights we’ve seen on the news are harbingers of deeper psychological needs. I watched the fight-or-flight survival instincts pour into the bottled water aisle at a local superstore as people fought for the last case.

While such hoarding seems somewhat illogical for this event, if stocking up on toilet paper makes someone feel in control, who am I to judge them? EXCEPT, now no one else can find any toilet paper, thereby creating angst among the rest of us who now wonder if and when we’ll be able to get some of these essentials when our supplies are low.

The anxiety begets anxiety.

Negativity feeds fear among first responders

First responders are accustomed to being on the front line, but not so accustomed to being the tip of the spear, navigating the uncharted currents of a novel virus.

We are also accustomed to the grin-and-bear-it attitude that it sometimes takes to push through tragedy to get the job done. What’s very different in this scenario is the global effect, which is well-documented by the news media as well as the hordes of “keyboard epidemiologists” who have no actual epidemiology training but sure know how to peddle virus-related fear and panic. The constant drumbeat of negativity will wear on even the toughest amongst us.

A personal tetrahedron to stay mentally focused

While we are all familiar with the fire tetrahedron as it relates to our job, it is important for each of us to maintain a personal tetrahedron that uses our core mission – service – as its base. The other three sides of the tetrahedron are:

  1. Physical strength
  2. Moral focus
  3. Mental toughness and stability

Let’s review each and how we can use these points to maintain our mental focus during this trying time.

1. Physical strength: We generally cover physical strength through physical fitness programs, exercises and demonstrations of brute force on fire scenes. Adding to physical strength, we need to improve our overall health and wellness – a look around the room at most conferences will confirm this assessment. Aaron Zamzow offers great information about maintaining physical health at his FireRescue1 columnist page.

2. Moral focus: While the vast majority of our teams maintain good moral character and responsibility, we do tend to struggle through news report after news report of firefighters charged with theft, arson, sexual crimes, or having committed other illegal and illicit sundry of things. We preach regularly about ridding our ranks of those miscreants to help maintain the public trust. Moral focus is where I’ll constantly profess that we need to “Just Do The Right Thing” (JDTRT). There will not always be a book on the shelf or a plaque on the wall to tell you what that means, but JDTRT will help you focus energies toward positive and productive action.

3. Mental toughness: The people who choose these professions are generally pretty tough people – you have to be mentally tough or you won’t make it long in a busy market. Mental toughness, however, does not mean that your mind or body can simply continue to absorb bad news and bad sights day after day in perpetuity.

Critical incident stress management (CISM) programs can be essential for an organization’s survival, if implemented and believed in by organization leaders and members. CISM programs can provide a robust network of available services, but the members have to avail themselves of the services. More often than not, we shy away from the CISM and PTSD acronyms in favor of other forms of “treatment,” like temporary seclusion with the aid of destructive vices. But that is not the answer.

I’ll offer these tips on managing mental toughness through crisis:

  • Have a CISM program. In Highlands County, Florida, the department is too small for our own program, so we have joined with the Sheriff’s Office to establish a team with trained law enforcement, fire and EMS – paid and volunteer members.
  • Exercise the program, and routinely refresh its notification and services. At one week into COVID-19, we resent the call list for CISM services and confirmed that ANY member on the team would be willing to take a call and help anyone from ANY discipline. Sometimes – especially in small towns – you don’t want to talk to “one of us.” I get it. I don’t care who you talk to; just talk to someone.
  • Communicate with your troops. To maintain social distancing, use video chats or video conference calls to provide broader interaction. If you’re in the area of calls that you might not normally assist with, this is a good time to practice your skills and support the crews where staffing might be sparse.
  • Demonstrate empathy, sympathy and compassion. You can be as tough as you want, but if you’re going to be a successful leader, your people need to see that you understand their vulnerabilities and the stresses the job has on them. And don’t forget to say thank you on a regular basis.
  • Provide a mental and physical release, whether that’s weightlifting, basketball, jogging, movie time or the chief taking the crew out for lunch (to the picnic table for now). Provide the opportunity for some down time amidst the chaos all around us.
  • Don’t forget the family. Times like COVID-19 stress healthcare workers’ and first responders’ families. The global nature of the virus has had previously unthinkable global reaches – closing schools, restaurants, sporting events, theaters and a multitude of other businesses, indefinitely. Travel plans for many have been cut short or canceled, financial markets were in a freefall, and the virus appears to be attacking our elders with a vengeance. Chiefs are going to have to help their people, help themselves and help their families through this. Even though there are provisions in the new federal leave legislation that allow for the exclusion of first responders, chiefs must remember their human side through this, as much as they exercise their management side.
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Sheltering and isolation: Vital but tiring

COVID-19’s ease of spread makes transfer to your home a near certainty without separation and protection. As such, states and locales are taking important steps to help protect our larger national family – shutting borders, installing checkpoints, quarantining travelers, closing mass-meeting places, and encouraging everyone to just stay home. There are some who still resist, fighting the calls for separation and isolation as violating our Constitutional rights.

Pushing back from the community is counterintuitive to the good nature of the fire service psyche. However, if ever there was a time for us as a citizenry and for our people to understand the meaning of “the greater good,” that time is now.

Support your people and help them see the bigger picture, specifically that there will be long-term gains to come out of the short-term pains. It is important to demonstrate the behaviors you want your community to follow. While it’s difficult to do what we do without being out in the community, it isn’t difficult to limit group meetings and provide distance between workers while they’re conducting virtual and small group training.

The hits keep coming

If all of this wasn’t enough, the “regular”/non-COVID-19 911 calls keep coming. Many places have seen a reduction in car wrecks because there’s less traffic on the roads. Regardless, there are still myriad calls to answer. Your people need help getting through the combination of COVID-19 and all the regular drumbeat of pain and suffering.

Some steps departments have taken to minimize risk through COVID-19, while continuing to answer calls:

  • Reduce the number of people dispatched to low-acuity calls.
  • Establish protocols that minimize the number of people going into closed environments, while maintaining crew safety.
  • Cancel public events and traditional program deliveries; you can pick them up later.
  • Cancel station tours to limit contamination.
  • Maintain staffing levels and protocols that provide for crew safety – don’t compromise here!

While it is critical that we answer the new calls for COVID-19, it’s also important we adapt to the new normal. While you adjust, make sure you haven’t thrown the baby out with bathwater. There are still important things that we need to do – record-keeping, disaster protocols, supply ordering, apparatus repairs, station maintenance, gear cleaning, etc. – figurative and literal fires we need to put out, and unforeseen issues we will need to address.

Focus on your people and JDTRT

As much as we need our people to practice the personal tetrahedron, they need you to model the behavior. Your ability to be physically strong, morally focused and mentally tough will manifest in your ability – and that of your crews – to provide quality service.

Don’t forget JDTRT, and tell your folks thank you for a job well done – today and every day.

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