The Effect of Mental Skills Training on Firefighter Performance Under Stress

– Executive Summary

Firefighting is a physically, mentally, and emotionally demanding profession. Firefighters make time-pressured, high-consequence decisions while performing physically challenging tasks, often under extreme environmental conditions. However, training efforts focus primarily on strategy, tactics, and physical performance and do not offer firefighters strategies for mitigating the negative effects of stress on human performance. Therefore, the firefighting profession needs research-backed methods that can improve decision-making, judgment, and outcomes under stress for this population.

This randomized control study tested the effect of mental skills training (MST), an approach used by other demanding professions, such as medicine, aviation, and military special operations, on firefighter performance under stress. Participants were recruited from the recruit academy of a large metropolitan fire department. In total, 46 recruits were included in the data collection: 26 in the experimental group and 20 in the control group. The groups were normalized for sex and prior experience. While the recruits in the intervention group were given an MST curriculum of approximately 60 minutes, those in the control group received a lecture on the effects of nutrition and cardiovascular disease on performance. After receiving classroom training, all participants donned firefighting gear and completed a firefighting exercise in a training building with live actors. This study collected data on task completion times, quality of task performance, physiological stress levels, and other metrics for analysis.

The framework for this study’s MST curriculum for urban firefighters was developed by correlating the combined expertise from military, medical, law enforcement, and athletic programs with a relevant structural firefighting subtask. Like MST programs in other fields, this firefighter-specific MST curriculum focused on the four pillars of arousal control, visualization, goal setting, and self-talk. Arousal control techniques targeted breathwork, including diaphragmatic breathing, box breathing, and prolonged exhalation. Visualization presented the benefits of simulated mental practice paired with a guided example exercise. Goal setting identified the key components of high-quality goals and how setting interim and outcome goals could help successfully complete complex tasks during high-stress emergency response. Self-talk strategies included instructional self-talk, motivational self-talk, and preparatory arousal. After the lecture, participants were divided into small groups and given opportunities to practice each technique in a series of breakout sessions.

During the experiment scenario, participants encountered a simulated collapse and found their crew replaced with training mannequins trapped under a large piece of concrete. Each participant then had to transmit a mayday message via portable radio. Task completion times were recorded by evaluators, and mayday transmissions were digitally recorded and later graded by independent assessors. At the conclusion of the scenario, participants completed an exit survey about their self-assessed performance and level of stress. Heart rate data were collected with a Polar H10 heart rate monitor chest strap during a rest period and throughout the evolution. The data from the heart rate monitors were later analyzed for changes in heart rate variability (HRV), a reliable index of stress.

As hypothesized, MST was shown to be effective in reducing the effects of stress across several physiological indicators, despite the short duration of the applied intervention. A statistical analysis of HRV during rest and work periods across both control and intervention groups examined three different HRV metrics: the root mean square of the successive differences between heartbeats, the standard deviation of normal-normal (SDNN) intervals, and the Baevsky stress index. Across all three metrics, the intervention group showed statistically significant improvements in HRV, indicating that the training was effective in mitigating the body’s stress response and better preparing the group’s members to respond to the emergency encountered.

Task times for locating the trapped firefighters and transmitting a distress signal did not differ significantly, likely due to the low level of difficulty in this experimental set up. The recorded emergency radio messages were graded by independent fire academy instructors using a rubric developed for this study. The intervention group showed a trend toward higher instructor-assigned grades that fell just shy of statistical significance. Some participants in both groups could reasonably be expected to have been exposed to the MST concepts through previous experiences in sports or prior professions. Nevertheless, the results of the post-exercise survey supported the a priori hypothesis that the intervention group would utilize the MST techniques more heavily than the control group, even after only one hour of instruction. Those in the intervention group were significantly more likely to report both the use and perceived helpfulness of MST techniques. MST is a highly effective, easy-to-implement methodology with proven effects on stress response in other high-demand fields. This study adds to that body of evidence by demonstrating the effect of MST on human performance in a firefighter population. Fire departments should incorporate these techniques into their teaching methods to improve the ability of their firefighters to operate effectively in high-stress environments. Further studies should examine the magnitude and longevity of stress response mitigation offered by MST when the training is delivered over multiple sessions with an opportunity for practice and reinforcement.

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