Safety & Health

Stoicism and the Art of Fighting Fire

“A blazing fire makes flame and brightness out of everything that is thrown into it.”–M. Aurelius

The stoic does not overreact. (Unsplash)

By Kristopher T. Blume

Many terms are used to describe firefighters and their attributes. How about this one: stoic. No need for us to bury ourselves in philosophical ponderance. At base, stoicism is about cultivating a rational approach to recognize what is within one’s control and what is not. Digging deeper, it is about acceptance and resilience. The classic principles of Stoicism set forth by Seneca, Aurelius, and Epictetus are straightforward and concise. In fact, in principle, stoicism is leveraged by four virtues:

Courage is the mental strength to endure; persevere; and overcome danger, fear, or adversity. Courage is built on experience and competence. The opposite of courage is fear, dread, and anxiety, which are the result of uncertainty and inexperience.

Wisdom, as it relates to stoic virtue, is the accumulated appraisal of insight, judgment, and knowledge.

Self-control or moderation is the ability to regulate oneself–specifically, controlling one’s emotions and desires or the expression of those emotions in one’s attitudes and actions. This attribute becomes amplified in adverse situations.

Thriving in adversity. “Excellence withers without an adversary,” Seneca stated in Letters from a Stoic. We should not avoid hardship. Instead, we should adopt a more competitive attitude toward our challenges. Anticipate being uncomfortable but prepared. Narrow your attention to your task at hand. Focus your energies on those activities that will produce the desired result; this is how one thrives on adversity.

These four virtues are a road map for the fire service. The very nature of the fire service imparts the need to understand, embrace, and implement stoic virtues. We cannot control where, when, or what the emergency response may be. We may not know the conditions of the event: rate of fire spread, number of victims, condition or construction type, and the list of inexhaustible variables that challenge every emergency. We do, however, have the opportunity to apply the four stoic virtues to every incident and everyday tasks.

Stoicism in the fire service builds resilience. It allows one to maintain an indomitable spirit in the face of irrational or unfortunate circumstances and in turn overcome those hardships. The stoic does not overreact but, with practice, traditionally challenging responses become instinctual and habitual. Stoicism re-engineers negative opinions and emotions into a sense of perspective and mental readiness to create a winning mindset. We often cannot change outcomes, but we can change the way we respond to them. With a stoic mindset, obstacles and challenges become opportunities. Modern stoics practice training one’s perception with “turning the obstacle upside down” or, as Aurelius famously said, “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”

This becomes the growth opportunity for fire service professionals, from recruit firefighter to fire chief. Knowing what is within your control and what is not and the ability to discern the two are at the heart of all things. According to the stoic, nothing is truly good or bad, only your perception. Therefore, if we can challenge our mindset to seek opportunity in adversity, we become better opportunity managers.

“The more we value things outside our control, the less control we have.”–Epictetus.

Any experience that lies beyond one’s personal choice should be seen as a chance to demonstrate strength and resilience. The mental framework is not to see misfortune but to see the circumstance of opportunity. Practicing stoicism is differentiating what we can change and what we cannot, what we can exert influence over and what is immovable. Spend our time and efforts on those things we can change and influence.

The three desired effects of practicing stoic principles for the fire service are becoming an opportunity manager; increased mental, physical and emotional resilience; and increased confidence.

As a firefighter, stoicism develops talents and abilities to work well with others. It delivers on committing oneself to excellence. As we hire and train the newest members of the profession, stoicism enhances their problem-solving abilities and instills confidence in their aptitudes. Developing a resilient mindset will serve one well for the duration of their career. The process of creating a resilient mindset isn’t for the faint of heart but neither is life. Resilience creates the best chance at not enduring the profession but thriving. The stoic firefighter also develops professional integrity, doing what is right not to impress others but to impress himself.

For our first line officers, lieutenants and captains, stoicism enhances the development of situational awareness by enhancing the desire to recognize challenges and obstacles with a cue-primed response model that is based on confidence, not fear. Further, as principles are exercised, our officers will become better opportunity managers–they will learn to not seek to control all aspects of firehouse or fireground chaos but rather to seize opportunities and address challenges from a confident, self-controlled perspective. Officers who feel comfortable realizing they do not have to have all the answers but have a desire to learn and integrate from others’ examples will exhibit the stoic principle of wisdom.

For our chief and administrative officers, this is where years of practicing stoicism and the art fighting fire will coalesce. All of the aforementioned learned and practiced principles come to fruition. And yet, the practice is never complete. The goal of self-mastery and purposeful action guides the executive officers’ decision-making processes. The chief officer will need to learn and demonstrate being dispassionate with events, meetings, and other sources that can elicit strong visceral responses. It would do the chief officer well to remember that not every action requires an emotional reaction. Additionally, chief officers in their administrative roles are offered the opportunity to be responsive and demonstrate equanimity to political and organizational fluctuations. The stoics recognize their weaknesses and work with deliberate action to address them. This growth allows chief officers the opportunity to discover and develop an appreciation for diversity of thoughts, views, and opinions.

Stoicism in the fire service builds resilience. It allows one to maintain an indomitable spirit in the face of irrational or unfortunate circumstances. The stoic does not overreact. Through practice, responses become instinctual and habitual. The virtue of stoicism offers discernment and the opportunity for balance and resilience to an ever-evolving profession.

Kristopher T. Blume is a battalion chief and a 19-year veteran of the Tucson (AZ) Fire Department. He is an author, a lecturer, and an independent consultant. He is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer (EFO) program through the National Fire Academy and an alumnus of the University of Arizona and has several undergraduate and graduate degrees. Blume is focused on values-driven, mission-focused leadership for the fire service.