Stress Inoculation Training

Someone on facebook asked about stress inoculation as it pertains to firefighter training. Here are my thoughts. Feel free to add yours, especially those of you that are fire instructors:

Hose Bed 275

Radio Traffic Blaring, Smoke Detectors Alerting, Bells Ringing and being forced to THINK under Pressure…  STRESS!!!!!!

Stress inoculation is extremely important to quality training. There are steps to reaching the point where outside stress is added to the evolution,  though. Stress inoculation prevents the proper uptake of information if someone is learning or training at a beginner or less advanced level. Mastery of basics and advanced tactics and skills must be ensured prior to adding additional stressors to a scenario. For instance,  you wouldn’t teach someone to drive by putting them behind the wheel of a stock car at the Daytona 500.

Stress inoculation is about making a scenario as real as possible within reasonable safety limitations. I say reasonable because we cannot safety ourselves out of training. We do a terribly unsafe job, and only through education and life like, realistic training can we make it safer. It just so happens that when we train, we get better. And getting better makes us safer.

So for stress inoculation to be effective, you have to make the scenario realistic. Our performance under stress is similar to the way an old card-style Rolodex works. We get hit with a stressful situation,  and our brains start flipping through the memories until they hit one that seems similar to the situation at hand. The more of those we have, the better the odds are that we make the right call. If the brain doesn’t have a previous record of the situation, it can sometimes keep flipping for quite a while, making decisions at a slower pace than the situation requires, or just making a call at random just to make a call and stop flipping.

Stress inoculation also helps with off-the wall situations for which no Rolodex card could ever be made in training. Our brains are adaptive. Even if we don’t have a perfect situational example to reference, if our brains are used to making GOOD pressured decisions, they start to make stress itself into a memory. We begin to make better decisions under pressure.

What I have seen NOT work is trying to train proper decision making and tactics without the proper input necessary to really formulate a correct strategy or to correctly apply good tactics. You CAN train stress inoculation in this manner, but be very careful that you don’t confuse decision making under pressure with GOOD decision making under pressure.

-Don’t expect students to imagine anything that they would normally be able to see on scene. We are primarily influenced by what we see when making fireground decisions. Telling a student to imagine a downed power line, a victim, or any number of infinite possible problems is not going to teach them to look for those problems on scene. It only teaches them to go through the motions, and that someone will verbalize all the important stuff.

-Don’t make students practice critical skills out of context. Give them a reason to CHOOSE to use that skill in the scenario.

-Make scenarios challenging,  but not unrealistic. Even if a problem is able to be overcome,  if it is not reasonably possible to encounter such an issue on the fireground,  it serves no purpose. Again,  this goes back to context. When the Rolodex starts flipping, having a contextual reference makes finding the answer much easier for the brain.

-Stress should be individualized as necessary. Not always possible, but even at the same skill level, students are at different stress handling capabilities. Some beginners to a new skill or tactic are extremely good already at handling outside stress. As they master new things, they can handle more stress, and need more stress applied in training to see improvement in their ability to cope with challenges.

By: William Knight