Inhale, Exhale, Fight Fire

Barry Boyce reports on a group of firefighters who are employing mindfulness techniques in the workplace, encouraging situational awareness and saving lives.

Photo by Steve Bishop

At a presentation at the Center for Mindfulness’ annual conference focused on training U.S. Forest Service firefighters in “mindfulness-based situational awareness.” James Saveland, program manager for Human Factors and Risk Management at the Rocky Mountain Research Station in Fort Collins, Colorado, talked about the training in simple mindfulness techniques that he and Ted Putnam, a retired forest service employee who does accident investigations, have been doing with fire crews. Saveland told me that Putnam had been a key investigator into Colorado’s South Canyon fire in 1994 that killed fourteen firefighters.

Following the investigation, Putnam organized a human factors conference and has been pushing ever since for greater attention to the role of situational awareness—a term used largely in military contexts that refers essentially to the intimate awareness of one’s surroundings on a moment-to-moment basis as a precursor to decision-making under stress.

Saveland had begun to take an interest in work done at a human performance laboratory at the University of Montana that suggested there were many similarities between firefighters and elite endurance athletes. He then started to research endurance athletic training that employed mindfulness training, and was impressed with how applicable this approach might be to firefighter training. Last year, he and Putnam piloted a half-day course that introduced firefighters to situational awareness and recent research on the benefits of enhancing it. They taught mindful breathing, walking, and body-scanning, and suggested how mindfulness could be applied to any kind of physical activity.

“We used Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness as ‘paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, as if your life depended on it, nonjudgmentally,’” Saveland said, “which resonated well with this group. We also taught Andrew Weil’s 4-7-8 breathing exercise as a way of pausing, taking a moment, and collecting thoughts. We suggested they might use that before a morning briefing, for example.” Based on the success of doing the half-day course with a number of crews, this year Saveland and Putnam are doing more in-depth training with two crews in the field, looking at how mindfulness techniques could be incorporated into daily operations.

“We’re trying to encourage the crews to see this as part of mind-body fitness,” Saveland said. He’s written a guide to bringing mindfulness into a daily physical fitness routine, something common to all firefighters. “We’re trying to break down the stereotype of mindfulness as esoteric. Ted and I are both meditators and we were smoke jumpers, so we have some credibility in the community. They know we are motivated by a desire to save lives.”