Fire Service Warrior Mindfulness

The domain of Fire Service Warrior Mindfulness includes articles and resources on decision making, meditation, and a host of important topics critical for developing the mind of a warrior

Critical Thinking: A Mindfulness Skill

By: Christopher Brennan
Christopher Brennan

“Take the risk of thinking for yourself, much more happiness, truth, beauty, and wisdom will come to you that way.” – Christopher Hitchens

The ability to think critically, to examine ideas, to separate the known from what we believe we know, and to draw conclusions that match reality may be the most important quality a person can cultivate. If you lack this capacity, or at this stage in your life the desire to acquire it, then you will find yourself marching in step with someone else’s ideas. We can learn from others, we must learn from others. However we also need to make sure that what we are learning is valid. Tradition is a powerful factor in the fire service, but that doesn’t mean that all of our traditional views are rooted in valid information.

Among the facts of life is that children are predisposed to believe their parents, and other adults. This is a highly useful trait when it comes to keeping kids safe as they grow and learn. I think it is safe to say that many of you reading this wouldn’t have lived this long if you had not be predisposed to listen to the adults around you. When we enter the fire service in many ways we are entering the second childhood of an apprenticeship. We are confronted with a wealth of information and expectations that are completely new to us, and we inevitable trust those around us to instruct us well.
We cannot ignore the fact though that all of us at times have repeated, spread, or held an idea that later turned out to be just plain wrong. Among the Mindfulness skills we seek to cultivate is the ability to catch ourselves and others before we disseminate bad information that can cause us injury.

“It seems to me what is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas. Obviously those two modes of thought are in some tension. But if you are able to exercise only one of these modes, whichever one it is, you’re in deep trouble.” – Carl Sagan

What is critical thinking? I like the definition that critical thinking is, “disciplined thinking that is clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence.” What does this mean? Let’s break it down into pieces.

First, to be disciplined in our thinking means that we do not allow our speculation to wander around, we think about a topic in a systematic way. Second, rational thinking is when we allow logic and the facts steer our thinking. Now, I am a huge proponent of allowing your intuition (your gut feelings) to play a role in guiding you, but I will caution you: if you allow your feelings to steer your thoughts and you are not suitably aware of what those emotions are telling you and why, you may reach a conclusion about an idea that has no basis in reality. Third, we must be open-minded. I cannot say this in any more simple way: question everything. Look for evidence that disagrees with what you think. It is very easy for us to look for information that supports what we believe, what we want to be true, yet ignore facts that contradict our viewpoint. This is called confirmation bias. Finally our thinking should be informed by evidence. What is evidence? Our dictionary reference tell us that the legal system considers evidence to be, “data presented to a court or jury in proof of the facts in issue and which may include the testimony of witnesses, records, documents, or objects.” I like to think of evidence as things that we can prove through experimentation, through experience (when we have controlled for variables), or through research.

Many times in your life you will come across “facts” that end up being incorrect. This is where the open mindedness becomes critical; if you are confronted with rational evidence that was obtained in a disciplined way and it contradicts what you already believe to be true, you must keep an open mind and explore it. You don’t need to jump ship and believe the new information just because it seems as though its better, you need to examine it, evaluate how the author or scientist came to his or her conclusion and see how it fits with what you have already learned. An open mind is perhaps on of the most challenging things to maintain when we try to be critical thinkers. The quote from Carl Sagan at the top of this section reminds us, this is no easy task. To hold two or more seemingly contrary ideas in mind and evaluate them to ascertain where the truth lies is a difficult task. It takes practice, discipline, and the understanding that what is objectively true often lies somewhere between the ideas.
Following the lead of a biologist and scholar whose work I have learned much from, Professor Richard Dawkins, I would like to contrast a myth of the creation of the universe with what we know to be true. In this case I would like to take a creation myth of the Quiché tribe of Guatemala. I’ve read and heard this story in a few different ways, and I will tell it to you in my own way.

In the beginning there was nothing except for Tepeu and the feathered serpent, Gucumatz. They sat together and anything they though came into being. They thought the sun and the moon, the earth and the planets, they thought the land and the sea, and the animals and the fishes. They thought men of clay, but these creations fell apart when they thought of rain. So the gods sent a flood to wipe out the clay beings. Then with the help of the mountain lion, the raven, and the coyote they thought of a pair of men and a pair of women. These people pleased the gods and became the parents of all Quiché.

Primitive people who did not have the benefit of the wealth of science we now know to be factual tried to understand how and why they came into being. It is human nature to use our large brains to explore why, how, and what our world is all about. In the absence of evidence we make up stories that serve to explain what we believe to be the case. This is perfectly normal. What we must realize though is that as our access to facts increases we must remain open to adjusting what we believe to be true.

For those of us who are watching the 21st Century of Firefighting unfold before us it is using our critical thinking skills to understand how our traditional operations and the continual emerging science fit together that is essential. We mustn’t just accept the next new idea as the right idea, nor can we discard new information just because it doesn’t line up with previously held beliefs. Be mindful of this.

Analysis and Synthesis

By: Christopher Brennan

Our observations, both conscious and unconscious, are routed to our minds to be processed. This processing is the Analysis and Synthesis aspect of our orientation. The process of analysis and synthesis was very important to Col. Boyd, to the extent that the only paper he ever wrote on the subject of decision-making and thought was “Destruction and Creation”.

In “Destruction and Creation” Boyd tells us, “Studies of human behavior reveal that the actions we undertake as individuals are closely related to survival, more importantly survival on our own terms.” He goes on to relate this to our ability to make decisions by saying, “In viewing the instinct for survival in this manner we imply that a basic aim or goal, as individuals, is to improve our capacity for independent action.” This is analogous to what I have described as Thriving. So, it can be said that our ability to analyze and synthesize is directly related to our survival.

The significant experience of this in my own life has been while operating as a firefighter inside a burning building. The interior of a burning building is a unique microcosm, a relatively small mirror image of a larger whole, in this case it is a world of its own. The fundamental natural laws of physics and chemistry govern this world, but the dynamics of it are unique. No two building fires will develop in the exact same manner, and as a result of this dynamism the firefighter operating inside this environment must be able to make sense of what is occurring without having the ability to study the specific scenario in advance.

This is life.

At any moment we are immersed in a world that is constantly changing and that will require us to make decisions that may directly effect our survival.

From choosing how we will fuel our bodies, to the kinds of information we will put into our minds, to if we will consume alcohol or other drugs for the purposes of altering our perceptions of reality, and down the line the decisions we make will have a direct (though not necessarily immediate) effect on our ability to thrive.

Our ability to make these decisions is directly governed by how well the inputs we are receiving through our observations (and stimuli that affect us even down to the cellular level) pass through our filters and are analyzed and synthesized. The world of cognitive neuroscience is a massive topic and beyond the scope of a mere article. I encourage you to become a student of how you and others think (analyze and synthesize) so that you can better understand why you make the decisions that you do.

Col. Boyd’s diagram captures much of what is involved in how we think. One thing I have come to believe is missing from the diagram though is a way of indicating the very real effect that the biology and chemistry occurring inside us have on our ability to analyze and synthesize. There is still a lot of work to be done to understand how we analyze and synthesize, how memory works, and how we actually take three pounds of grey and white matter and use electrical charges to make decisions. We will eventually understand these processes, of that I have no doubt. For the time being however I would rather focus our time on a more practical aim.

Our thoughts and decisions happen within the environment that we maintain in our brains. The internal environment of all living things seeks to maintain homeostasis. Homeostasis is “The tendency of an organism or a cell to regulate its internal conditions, usually by a system of feedback controls, so as to stabilize health and functioning, regardless of the outside changing conditions.” This means that our bodies, down to the cellular level, are expending energy to maintain a functional environment. How does this relate to our ability to make decisions?

The general environment that is found throughout the body affects the environment of our brains. In this way our general level of neurochemistry acts as a throttle on the effectiveness of our ability to analyze and synthesize.

Keep this thought in mind, as I’m going to take up the subject of our internal operating environment in articles to come.

The Fourth Filter – New Information

Christopher Brennan

Our ability to make sense of the world around us, to make good decisions about how to move through that world, is directly related to our ability to incorporate new information into our worldview. I have written before about the effects of intellectual entropy. The second law of thermodynamics tells us that all energy and matter moves into a state of disorder in a closed system. Our access to, and more importantly willingness to incorporate New Information, is the only mechanism we have to offset the effects of intellectual entropy.
Human beings seem to be born with an aversion to new information. Whether we are talking about the Roman Catholic Church taking 329 years to vindicate Galileo’s cosmology, or the United States’ Food and Drug Administration’s steadfast holding onto a high carbohydrate diet as the key to weight loss despite mounting evidence that their prescription is actually causing an increase in diabetes and heart disease, we see that groups of people are very hesitant to change what they believe to be true. Regardless of this predisposition, if we seek to make good decisions we must strive to allow new, and at times contradictory, information a place at the table, so to speak.
Being open to new information is something we can develop. It requires that we strive to think critically about topics and question everything. Question what you believe to be true, question what others believe to be true, look to the source data that supports a viewpoint, and even more importantly look for information that contradicts your views. This can range from reading a newspaper whose editorial board favors a political view you disagree with to going to the extreme of digging into literature and narrative that supports an idea antithetical to your own.
History has validated that the National Socialist Party and its leadership perpetrated a holocaust against the Jewish people (as well as gypsies, homosexuals, people with special needs, and others they labeled as undesirable) yet there are still those who insist this is a fiction. The former president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed the holocaust was a myth. How could the leader of the 17th largest nation in the world (by population) make such an egregious claim? It was either in his political interest to make this assertion despite knowing it was false, or he believed fiercely in something he had been taught which ran contrary to the facts of the world. In the same vein there are people who believe the Earth is only 6000 years old despite the weight of evidence that says it is roughly 4.5 BILLION years old. There is no way to easily cast off beliefs that have been taught to us since birth.
I do want to take a moment and say that our openness to new information isn’t synonymous with doubting accepted facts or the need to be solipsist. Knowledge is a real thing. We have to learn from the knowledge of others. Continuing advancement in science, in philosophy, in any subject you can think of is only possible by building on the work (both the successes and the failures) of those who came before us.
As John of Salisbury wrote, “Bernard of Chartres used to say that we are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more than them, and things at a greater distance, not by virtue of any sharpness of sight on our part, or any physical distinction, but because we are carried high and raised up by their giant size.” The can be no doubt that the breathtaking pace of innovation that became common place in the 20th Century, and whose pace has quickened in the 21st, is do to the sheer accumulation of knowledge that we have access to.
In looking at how we make decisions and trying to apply the lessons contained in the OODA Loop we must constantly allow new information into the system.

The Third Filter – Previous Experience

Editor’s Note: We are finally getting back to examining the Orientation Phase of the OODA Loop.  You may want to check out “Are You In The Loop,” “The First Filter,” and “The Second Filter” to refresh.

Christopher Brennan

“Just remember that the things you put into your head are there forever.” The Road, Cormac McCarthy


I’ve been stewing on how to tackle the filter of Previous Experience for months.  This has the potential to be a massive topic of consideration, and one that would bore you to death in about twelve seconds.  Tops.

The easy way out might have been to just write an essay that lays out the research into performance and mastery that I have talked about before.  It takes 200 repetitions of a skill to build automaticity, and it take 10,000 hours of deliberate practice over the course of a decade to reach the level of competency seen in an international elite performer in domains ranging from chess Grand Masters to award winning musicians.

Those are the easy ways to quantify previous experience, but I have to say that as we examine Col.Boyd’s concept of the OODA Loop we have to remember that the diagram is simple in the same way the equation E=MC2 is simple.  In the case of the OODA Loop, we have a model that is attempting to describe how our minds work. It may not look simple, but it is pretty distilled

Simplicity is what Nobel Prize winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann is speaking of in his TED talk “Beauty, truth, and… physics?”[i]  Elegance and beauty are nearly synonymous when we are talking about the refined expression of a complex topic.  Just because it can be expressed simply doesn’t mean it’s easy.

So, what is previous experience?  Put simply it is the amalgamation of every emotion, every thought, every action that has happened to you, that has been stored somewhere in your mind.  Some of these things are unconscious; you could not recall them if you were commanded to and yet there they sit having left an imprint on how you think and feel.

We are unable to control our previous experiences for the most part.  We are being bombarded with stimuli constantly; even when we are sleeping our skin cells are using photoreceptive traits to modulate hormonal levels.  Yet our previous experiences can and will color everything we do.  Considering then our focus, if our previous experiences are an aspect of our Orientation and have a direct bearing on how we implicitly and explicitly decide and act, how does learning and studying our previous experiences help our ability to perform?

human brain


A Mouse and a Bull Walk Into a Bar

We have to turn a critical and unemotional eye on our past reaching back into childhood, and consider all that we currently believe and why we believe it if we are to take the maximum benefit of our positive previous experiences and learn to transcend those things that have left us with road blocks.  Our objective is to assess the environment around us with the highest degree of accuracy possible.  We want to remove errors that WE are creating because of misinterpretation so that we can rapidly and appropriately respond to what is actually happening in our environment.

In Notes from Underground, Dostoyevsky’s narrator compares the qualities of a mouse to the qualities of a bull.  The mouse is analogous to the person who sits in contemplation of all he does, all he has and has not done, and all he could have done which would have made his life better.  The bull is the proverbial man of action, who plunges into the fray without a second thought.  The mouse, in Fyodor’s view, is caught inside his own mind while the bull has never a second thought.  This tendency towards self-reflection and criticism has its down sides,

“…the luckless mouse succeeds in creating around it so many other nastinesses in the form of doubts and questions, adds to the one question so many unsettled question that there inevitably works up around it a sort of fatal brew…”[ii]

This 1864 novella’s allusion to the unsettling effects of doubt brought on by the highly reflective person is spot on if we consider what Leonard Mlodinow reports in Subliminal, “In fact studies show that the people with the most accurate self-perceptions tend to be moderately depressed, suffer from low self esteem, or both.”[iii]  Regardless it is important that we ask where our views come from and how they have brought us to where we are.

The movie American History X portrays the far-reaching consequence that previous experiences have on a person’s worldview.  The character of Derek becomes a violent white supremacist, after black drug dealers murder his father.  The movie is as much about the impact of Derek’s incarceration, for murdering two black men for attempting to steal his truck, on his brother Danny as it is about Derek’s eventual rehabilitation.  A pivotal scene in the movie shows us how Derek’s and Danny’s father’s racism laid a foundation for his sons racist world view to grow from.  To revisit a quote I’ve used before but I feel is always worth repeating, “Ignorance is something you can’t overcome but you past it on down and that’s something much worse…”[iv]

While Notes… and American History X are deeply philosophical they are works of fiction and as such have to tell us a story.  Our examination of our previous experiences, our conscious ones as well as our unconscious ones tell us a story as well, the story is about how our worldview has come to be constructed.  It is in understanding that narrative that we can begin to understand how our previous experiences inform our decisions.



[ii] Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from the Underground, Kindle Public Domain Book

[iii] Leonard Mlodinow, Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior, 2012

[iv] Dropkick Murphy’s “The Torch”


By: Garrett Rice

I recently sat on our department’s interview board for first-round interviews.  I have done this before in past years, but this year I wanted to see if what I have been hearing about our “New Guys” is correct.  This would be an experiment to see whether or not the iGeneration, or whatever you want to call it, truly existed, and whether or not “OUR” fire service as we know it would, and will, continue on in the traditions that we have all come to love.

First, this is a hard task.  If we are like you, then your interviews are very structured.  For legality sake we have to ask all the same questions to all the candidates, but now realizing that this sets up our candidates up for very “canned” answers.  Stealing questions, chain of command questions, and integrity questions don’t have a lot of wiggle room.  They either get them right or don’t.  The open ended questions are what really matter.  We find out more about a person through these than anything else. 

We ask, “How did you arrive at wanting a career in the fire service?” The funny thing about that question is that it is different for everyone.  We get, “I’ve always wanted to ride the big red truck” (thank you for that) to very detailed stories of themselves that show us what type of guy or gal were hiring.  That question made me think about my story.  How did I arrive at wanting a career in the fire service?  That’s a question that needs to be asked from time to time to remind ourselves why we are here.  Do you remember being asked that, and how was your answer different then as it is now?

Our first candidate was older.  A lot of our candidates are looking at this career as a second lease on life.  His story was no different.  He had made a career change after coming home from a job that didn’t give him satisfaction.  His family noticed that he wasn’t fulfilled and an uncle suggested that he seek out a career that would fix that need.  His uncle happened to be a fireman and helped him through the difficult process of college and school all while having to maintain his family’s current life.  I felt and knew this guy would appreciate a job.  He has been somewhere.  He understands how good we really have it.  He isn’t going to bitch about working in the dead of summer in Texas.  He isn’t going to bitch about taking those extra steps and putting attention to detail to everything he does.  The problem with this candidate was that he set me up to feel as though we are never going to get that out of our iGeneration.  Was it possible? 

We sat through many more interviews of younger guys that led me to believe that what the guys have been saying is right.  Let’s call them the “Forgettables.”  They have middle-of-the-road stories and answers that we have heard all day long.  These kids don’t get it.  They don’t have life experience.  Their biggest disappointment was not getting selected for the Bachelorette, or The Real World… but I digress.

Towards the end of the day we had this kid with a different name.  Curious about the origin of his name we asked where he got his name from.  That one question opened this kid up to explain something we may have missed.  See, he got his name from his country of origin.  However it really didn’t match his last name.  He told us later that he and his two siblings were adopted from his country of origin at age 10.  Later in the interview he told us that he was in the U.S. military.  In fact, all of his adopted brothers and sisters were in the military.  They felt that for this gift of freedom and a second chance on life that they owed something to this country.  If you’re getting choked up, then you are like me.  Owed something to this country? That doesn’t seem like the iGeneration.  He had arrived at the fire service as a career because his military career has moved into reserve status and he felt that the “camaraderie” and the “brotherhood” could be continued in our profession.

My hope now is that we don’t let him down.  My hope is that everything he perceived and thought the fire service is meets his expectations, not the other way around.  I hope that I can live up to his standards because, honestly, they are high.  Isn’t that what we are looking for?  Isn’t that what we have complained about? Not getting it?

Standing up at the end of the interview, I firmly shook his hand and thanked him and his family for their service to our county.  Our military are my heroes.  I was moved.  This one candidate has erased every comment about this generation or that generation.  The fact of the matter is that every generation has said those same things about the younger generation at one time.  We are still attracting the right people, be it older for a second career or younger for their very first career.  Setting the good example, not letting our people down, explaining the “why” of what we do and continuing to keep them educated and motivated to one day take our place is the real challenge.  The challenge is on us, not on them.


Because We Can

By: Jonah Smith

Over my short career in the fire service, I have been asked many times: “Why do you care so much?” I often answer with: because I can.

Everyone should have that reason to get out of bed and get the day started.  Many days it is I have to work, or I have to tend to my son, but either way it is a purpose.

If one reads the Fire Service Warrior (FSW) ethos, you will see numerous bullet points that offer forth a basis for being a great person and a great firefighter.  Some ask why you should follow it, and the answer is because you can. 

We each have earned, or are allowed depending on your view, another day on the right side of the dirt, so why not make the most of it?  So why train everyday?  Training continuously on the basics may seem out of sorts for many, but we must realize this is skill reinforcement for all of us.  We need this skill reinforcement to ensure top-notch performances; and why perform our best on every call?  Because we can.

As you sit down at the firehouse, you can think about whether to retire to the recliner for the day or find something to train on.  I am sure that there are plenty of fallen firefighters’ families wishing that their loved one could be training with you shoulder-to-shoulder every day you work.  Those families envy the fact that you are afforded a chance to train on the same skills that their loved ones may have needed when they were struck with tragedy. 


Many firefighters make a mistake that costs them their life on an emergency scene—even something as simple as wearing their seatbelt.  Unfortunately, these firefighters never got the chance to learn from their mistakes, so why should we?  Well, I think you have figured out by now the reason why we learn is because we can.

We have all discussed mistakes and the importance for us as firefighters to accept and learn from them.  Inevitably, we will all have a few uh oh’s and our ability to learn from them shape us both as an individual and as a firefighter.  The last thing we need is a firefighter who makes the same mistakes time and time again without taking any sort of knowledge from them.  Corrective action in our trade is generally the driver of change rather than progressive thinking, so one could say learning from your mistakes is a foundation of the fire service whether we like it or not.

After I finish my shift, I always look forward to arriving home to see my family, as I hope all of you do.  I value the time at home as much, or more, than I do the time I spend at the firehouse (despite what my wife may tell you).  There are only 936 Saturdays between the time a child is born and the day they turn 18, so family days should be important since we will miss 1/3 of them afforded to us. If this figure doesn’t make you pause to think about all of those Saturdays you have chosen the fire service over your family, you need to look closely at your priorities.  All of the leaders of this community value family first and foremost, and the craft of firefighting second.  This movement is a holistic movement, not just a fire service training organization.  To be successful at nearly any rank in the fire service, one must have a strong support mechanism at home, and mine is my wife.  Value the time at home as much as the time at the firehouse and be as passionate at home as you are at work.

So why choose family time over some other choice? 

Because we can


Many in this community, readers and contributors alike, are involved in the fire service beyond their departments or organizations.  The FSW community is comprised of everyone from the tailboard rookie to some Chiefs, but each of them has a different mindset than the others in their departments.  You see, this FSW concept draws those who are consumed by the fire service, those who view our trade as a calling, not just a job as Travis Rask put it a few weeks ago.  Whether it’s chairing a 9-11 Stairclimb Committee or facilitating a live burn, Fire Service Warriors are laying it out there everyday to make their organization and our craft stronger.  As I wrote in one of my past pieces, people in this community are a selfless bunch, folks looking for positive change, not the credit for the change.  The FSW community has grown and will continue to grow with like minds who care about doing good for their organization for many reasons—one of which is because they can.


I am sure many of you feel incorporating some of the FSW concepts into your department may be a longshot; I understand that.  However, with this community around you, know that support is there and that we will help in any way because we can.  Change is never easy and will never be accepted by all, but we need to attempt to effect positive change simply because we can.

I now challenge you to hit the drill ground, study a NIOSH report, hit the gym, and hang out with the family, because you have been blessed with another day to get better.  Get better every day, value each day as a blessing, and as Ghandi said: “be the change you want to see in the world”.  Why?  Because you can.

Don’t Kill Yourself

By: Christopher Brennan


I think the title of this post is pretty self explanatory.

Don’t kill yourself. 

No matter what kind of issue you are confronting; regardless of how much you are suffering; DO NOT KILL YOURSELF.  Pick up the phone, send a text or reach out to a brother or sister firefighter, email me or one of the other members of this team, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255; most importantly just reach out to someone.

If you think, “I would be better off dead,” reach out to someone.

If you feel, “It’s too hard to keep going,” reach out to someone.

If you believe, “They won’t miss me, they’ll be better off without me,” you are wrong; reach out to someone.

Don’t kill yourself.

On June 4th I read a brother firefighter’s suicide note on Facebook.  His post showed the name of the community he was in and he’d included a photo of where he was..  As soon as I saw it, I knew where he was and that I had to call the police.  I stopped a conversation at the firehouse kitchen table by saying aloud, “I just read a friend’s suicide note.”  I knocked the receiver to the ground trying to pick up the phone because my fine motor control was already gone I had to haul it back up by the cord because I didn’t think to bend over and pick it up I fumbled to remember if I needed to dial the area code on the phone.  With my heart rate at a fear induced 120 beats per minute or so, my body trembling and my voice quivering, I told them what I believed was going on then smack dab in the middle had to go on a call for a fire alarm.  I did tactical breathing and told myself to be present in the moment, my rig was on the road and I was driving.

Don’t kill yourself.

It wasn’t long before the worst had been confirmed.  A young man, a brother firefighter, a man I had seen and spoken too just two months ago claimed his own life.  He left behind parents, a sibling, and a girlfriend, he left behind the brothers he was on shift with and those of his department, he left behind fellow firefighters, and friends.  By the time I quit looking at the note he had left on Facebook there were over 260 comments from friends first imploring him to call, expressing their love, saying that he wasn’t answering his phone, and then after some time had passed expressing their love and respect for a man they knew had left this world.

Don’t kill yourself.

I say this today because it is raw and fresh, and because it needs to be said when it’s raw and fresh.

Don’t kill yourself.

There is a tendency for suicides to happen in cycles.  The Phoenix Fire Department in Arizona experienced multiple suicides in the recent past.  There was a rash of firefighter suicides just last year.  It is a problem that won’t just go away.  We cannot wish it away.   We have to confront the problem and help those who need it.

Don’t kill yourself.

Malcolm Gladwell in his book Tipping Point talks about the prevalence of teen suicide in the Pacific Island nation of Micronesia.  An excerpt from his website addresses it succinctly:

One chapter, for example, deals with the very strange epidemic of teenage suicide in the South Pacific islands of Micronesia. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, Micronesia had teen suicide rates ten times higher than anywhere else in the world. Teenagers were literally being infected with the suicide bug, and one after another they were killing themselves in exactly the same way under exactly the same circumstances. We like to use words like contagiousness and infectiousness just to apply to the medical realm. But I assure you that after you read about what happened in Micronesia you’ll be convinced that behavior can be transmitted from one person to another as easily as the flu or the measles can.  (

Don’t kill yourself.

I’ve stood on the edge of the blackness myself.  When I was twenty-four years old my first marriage was coming apart at the seams.  I was afraid to get divorced because I didn’t want to be a failure.  I felt like the suffering I was experiencing was pervasive; I literally felt that the only way to stop the pain would be to kill myself.  Two things saved my life.  First, I went for a pre-employment physical and the Doctor asked some questions about my life, I answered them truthfully and he was astute enough to say, “You could use to talk to someone.”  So I did.  I got help, and turned things around.  The second thing that saved me was that I couldn’t imagine how much pain I would inflict on my infant son if he had to grow up without a father.  I share this with you now because I need you to know it can get better.  It will not be easy.  It may mean a lot of work.  It will be worth it.

Don’t kill yourself.

Our trade predisposes us to depression and anxiety because of our disturbed sleep, because of the emotionally challenging events we deal with, and because of the constant effect of neurochemicals like cortisol and adrenaline.  Everyday we walk a fine line of sympathetic nervous system activation and parasympathetic backlash.  Your exhaustion, fear, worry, and blinding stress are perfectly normal reactions by a human animal exposed to a chronic level of stress that we are not adapted to. Know that, except that, ignore the Sirens’ call that is evolution’s way of culling the herd.  To quote Admiral Ackbar, “It’s a trap!”

Don’t kill yourself.

Get at least seven and a half hours of sleep every night for a week.

Get a fifteen to twenty minute work out four days that week.

Eat only real food every meal of every day that week.  If it comes with a barcode or doesn’t spoil in a few days it is not real food

Watch your favorite comedy and laugh your ass off.

Tell someone you are hurting, suffering, feel overwhelmed, and want to hurt yourself.  You have to tell someone.

Don’t kill yourself.

These words are what I wished I’d had the chance to say to that young man.  They are the words I want to say to each and every brother and sister firefighter, to every friend, to every fellow human being walking this planet.  Some days suck, some days hurt so damn bad that you really BELIEVE that suicide is the best option.

Don’t kill yourself.

I look at my world every day, and I am grateful that providence put up enough speed bumps that I slowed down and saw the event horizon coming as got closer to the darkness.  If you are feeling that darkness, seeing that darkness, know that it can only get better if you keep away from the edge.

Don’t kill yourself.

I said it before and I will say it again:  If you are hurting tell someone you are hurting, call the National Suicide Hotline; call a friend, a doctor, or a mentor.  Email me if you need to,  I’m only one guy, but I mean it when I say I care about you.  Print this out and give it to someone you think needs it.  Don’t be afraid to tell someone you think they need help.  We are our brothers and sisters keeper.

Don’t kill yourself.

The Second Filter — Cultural Tradition

Christopher Brennan

As we continue to explore the five filters of the Orientation phase of the OODA Loop, I will take up the filter of Cultural Tradition.  I refer to it as the “second filter” because it’s the second I describe when I teach this topic.  I like to progress from Genetic Heritage through Cultural Traditions, Previous Experience, New Information, and finally Analysis and Synthesis, in that order.  I use this method because it takes us from a filter we have no control over (our genetics have changed little in 200,000 years) through a series of filters we are progressively more in control of.  I make this distinction now so that we don’t look at the filters as sequential; they are not.  These filters can be thought of as happening on a quantum level where perception, both conscious and unconscious, is being processed in all filters at the same time.  My distinction of an “order” is arbitrary, but based on a method I find useful for beginning to teach this concept to folks who have little exposure to John Boyd’s concept.  If you haven’t already, I do suggest you go back and read “‘Reality’ is the Only Word in the Language that Should Always Be Used in Quotes” and “The First Filter – Genetic Heritage.”

I want to remind you that the purpose of focusing on these filters is to develop our ability to Thrive.  When we are thriving we are flourishing, we are finding ourselves experiencing a state of optimal experience.  This is the condition that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to as Flow in his book by the same name.  It is the experience of Fingerspitzengefühl that Erwin Rommel displayed when he fought his division across France, and that John Boyd alludes to being the objective of maximizing our ability to use the OODA loop.  It is the state of optimal effect displayed by the members of the Special Operations community on countless direct action missions undertaken in Iraq, Afghanistan, and famously in the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan.  The difference between a Flow experience and Thriving is the extent of the experience; Flow (and Fingerspitzengefühl) is an experience of complete engagement in an activity, Thriving is the daily experience of complete engagement in all aspects of our daily lives.  Flow is the experience of the practitioner who has achieved a high level of performance in his or her area of expertise; Thriving is the experience of a dedicated generalist.


I am guilty of referring to things as “obvious” with great regularity.  My wife has pointed out my affectation for saying concluding sentences by saying, “Obviously!” enough times now that I catch myself when I do, and occasionally even avoid saying it altogether.  What I have come to realize is that when I say that something is obvious, what I am really doing is saying, “This is how I think things work.”  If it really was obvious there would be no need to make the comment or observation, you would all already be thinking it.

Our ability to perceive, comprehend, and predict are the three key elements of our ability to maintain situational awareness.  With this is in mind we should strive to ensure that our perceptions are as accurate as possible.  Through my own observation, as well as research, I feel that one of the key factors in a distorted perception of reality is our Cultural Traditions.  Mark Divine, founder of SEALFit and owner of US CrossFit refers to this as our “Background of obviousness”; those beliefs, ideas, and purported “facts” that we have be nurtured to believe.  We each belong to a number of cultural groups from the macro-group of our national identity or our ethnic heritage to the micro-group of our immediate family and a host of cultural groupings in between.  Each of these groups leaves an imprint on us; those imprints are often unconscious, yet still guide our perceptions, thoughts, and actions.  The key reason to examine our Cultural Traditions is to recognize these beliefs for what they are, learned behaviors, and assess if they are factual or simply “what we have always been told.”

Human children are predisposed to believe what our parents and responsible adults believe through conditioning (when the big person yells if you don’t listen you’re hand gets slapped) and also likely through a naturally selected mechanism.  This accounts for why everything from “don’t eat the red berries,” to “those people aren’t like us,” are readily passed down from parents to offspring.  I think that many people have confronted the discovery that a long held family custom is based on inaccurate or distorted information.  For children, when this first happens it can be quite shocking.  What I find curious is that as adults we do not more readily turn a critical eye on the traditions we have been raised to think are… obvious.  It’s important to remember the words of Socrates, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

There is a reasonable amount of discussion of this curiosity in the circle of evolutionary psychology as well as those scientists who have taken up the broad and multi-disciplinary topic of Consciousness research.  Leonard Mlodinow, in his book Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior, observes that, “Evolution designed the human brain not to accurately understand itself but to help us survive.”[1]  This process of “design” occurred through natural selection and is tied to our Genetic Heritage, as previously discussed.  What can be seen as an outgrowth of this genetic tendency to accept what we are taught by responsible adults forms the foundation of our Culture.

Religion, politics, and social conventions are all outgrowths of our Cultural Traditions.  Your religion is most often an identifier of geography and time.  If you had been born in Norway between the eight and eleventh centuries you would have believed that Odin was the all-father, hoped for a good rune casting, and worried about the coming of Ragnarök.  I’m willing to bet most of the folks who are reading this come from a whole different geographic/time stamp of religion and find their religion springs from the Jewish or Christian scriptures as interpreted through several thousand years of cultural traditions.  Few people choose their religion, it is handed to them by their parents and those beliefs, understandings, and expectations color their observations.  In the same way someone who is raised with a conservative political ideology will look at the world with a different filter than someone who looks through a liberal one.  It is not important for our filter to be the “right” one, nor for us to defend our filters; it is important to turn a critical eye to those aspects of culture we do believe, and consider the impact they have on our decisions.  This is not an easy task, as Mlodinow observes, “The stronger the threat to feeling good about yourself, it seems, the greater the tendency to view reality through a distorted lens.”[2]

Cleaning the Lens

The whole reason for examining these various filters is to, as Carl Jung said, “…make the darkness conscious.”  If we seek to maximize our capacity to use unfolding interactions with our environment, unfolding circumstances, and outside information (the three primary stimuli that feed into our observations) to make appropriate and effective decisions that will help us Thrive, we need to understand the effect our Cultural Traditions have.  To reference Mlodinow once again, “Accurate introspection makes use of our private knowledge of ourselves.”[3]  It is only by turning the light of introspection on our Cultural Traditions that we can fully come to understand their impact.




[1] Mlodinow, Leonard, Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior, Vintage Books (2012), p.194

[2] IBID p.197

[3] IBID p.166

Raising the Bar

At FSW we have a few reference cornerstones for our message, methodology and mission. We have mentioned the likes of On Combat, Deep Survival, and   Meditations in various posts and articles over the last few years however we rarely highlight them individually.  In order to give you a greater understanding of our sources we are going to provide you with one of those cornerstones in its entirety.

In our community the hot topic as of late are scientific study and reports on the new fire environment.  At the same time in newspapers and town halls across the country fire department funding, staffing and structure is in constant debate.

The challenges that lay ahead for our the American fire service in funding and function are more dynamic than ever and it is forcing our hand to adapt.  While one would think those in emergency services would be experts at adapting and overcoming, most of the American fire service is so deeply entrenched in “the way we have always done it” that those of us who are attempting to stay current or lead change can end up extremely frustrated.

For years Chris and I have read, reread, highlighted, referred to and reread Raising the Bar: Creating and Nurturing Adaptability to Deal with the Changing Face of War by Major Donald Vandergriff U.S. Army (Ret.)

The 135 page monograph is an incredible piece of work on leadership in the modern and dynamic world.  Parallels between the required changes for the U.S. Army to adapt to the modern battle ground and the U.S. Fire Service to adapt to the modern fire ground are endless.  I think that this document should be required reading for any current or aspiring company officer.  For Chief Officer levels the work of Vandergriff provides an outline of the much needed script the fire service of the future should lead and read from.

No need to further push my opinions, follow the link  below to the document and enjoy the read.  It won’t be very long into the document that you begin to think of the UL ventilation studies, modern building construction and the active passionate firefighters you tend to associate with whom are surrounded by an aging dinosaur that is the majority of the American fire service training and organizational models.  The good news is that as you read on you will see that the U.S. Army is attempting to mount a cultural change based on learning and example and so can we.

Raising the Bar  By: Major Donald Vandergriff