Enhancing Resilience in Firefighters Mindfully

by Mark Molony

For the past 15 years I have had the honor to work with an amazing group of professional firefighters from the local fire service in the Melbourne area which numbers approximately 2,200 firefighters. More recently, I have been incorporating the foundational practices of the Mindful life Program in assisting firefighters to developing resilience as they navigate the effects of their work. My role is as a part time consultant mental health worker supporting firefighters to maintain their well-being and mental health while they continue to work in a challenging emergency response role. Our firefighters, like many around the world, also work as first responders to medical emergencies where patients are non-breathing and non-responsive. These life and death calls can be very challenging for firefighters. As part of my role, I keep an eye out for all the different types of stress and traumatic situations firefighters are exposed to and work to restore and enhance their personal resilience.

One way I work with firefighters is by providing a service called a “well-being check”. This well-being check is the mental health equivalent of regular medical monitoring or physical health check ups by a doctor. In these well-being checks, I share about what can lower our resilience. I explore symptoms of stress, anxiety, depression and trauma, using some screening questionnaires and by reviewing significant life events that have impacted them in the past year. Together, we also explore beliefs and actions that support well-being and human flourishing. As a result of this well-being check, we develop a plan for the individual firefighter for the next year that will continue to build their resilience. The fire crews are usually very enthusiastic about their well-being checks, especially when I let them know that the aim is to help them maintain their own awareness, well-being and resilience while they are helping rescue others in our community.

As a result of my individual conversations with firefighters, I am able to have a very honest discussion about what helps to promote well-being and resilience. I introduce mindfulness, the practice of noticing and monitoring how you are in the present moment while actively remembering what are the important considerations in your life that you wish to take care of.

“The practice of mindfulness is much more than present moment awareness. It includes and facilitates the cultivation of concentration, wisdom and the ability to make healthy choices that foster genuine happiness and a meaningful life.” – John Bruna

These discussions often promote great interest as firefighters can be challenged by remembering many distressing and traumatic situations. These memories can trigger off some very strong emotions and reactions. After observing hundreds of firefighters in my professional practice over 15 years, one of their major strategies for dealing with these symptoms is keeping themselves very busy. It is common to see firefighters working two jobs and/or undertaking large projects, volunteering and undertaking charity work to keep themselves occupied. This busy behaviour is often highly productive, yet can also be driven by trying to avoid the difficult feelings, memories and thoughts that appear when you stop. We all can experience this when we stop being occupied and let our minds wander. Often the wandering mind will roam to areas of worry and concern. The practice of mindfulness and mindfulness meditation allows firefighters to calm and settle themselves and be present. This is often a pleasant contrast to the busy avoidance behaviours that keep them active and filling large chunks of their waking hours.

I have been delighted to see the beneficial impact that the foundational practices of the Mindful life Program has had in assisting individual firefighters to start developing a mindfulness practice. As a population, our firefighters tend to be practical, no nonsense types who want down to earth, grounded and simple strategies. So the design of the Mindful Life Program to be practical, universal and accessible works well. The mindfulness practices work at both a preventative and remedial level by assisting them to maintain higher levels of resilience to deal with their emergency responder roles and helping to reduce and cease distressing reactions after difficult personal and traumatic incidents. I look forward in the future to introducing a pilot mindfulness training for recruit firefighters and monitor their progress to more effectively validate the impact of the mindfulness training.