The Combat Position, Book Review, Part 1

I am only halfway through The Combat Position, Achieving Firefighter Readiness by Christopher Brennan, but I thought I would share my thoughts since there is so much to say about this fantastic book.


The Combat Position is a fluid read that addresses the mind, body, and spirit as it applies to firefighting warriorship.  The premise of the book is that firefighting is combat and therefore, firefighters are warriors.  Yet in order to embody true warriorship, we must go beyond the average way of doing things.  A warrior has a certain world outlook and embodies certain traits.  Just as there is a difference between a soldier and a warrior in the military, in firefighting there is a difference between a firefighter who settles for mediocrity and the fire service warrior who seeks physical and mental excellence.


Achieving firefighter readiness is all about stepping it up a notch.

The warrior way of life can be studied and cultivated and will help us not only survive, but thrive on the fire ground.  By following this path, we and those around us are more likely to return home safely.  But if we do not make it home, if we perish while striving to save others, then we will make the ultimate journey with brave hearts knowing that when duty called, we were ready.


Brennan lays out the path to warriorship throughout this book.  Chapter One explains The Warrior Ethos and addresses the virtues and values of our profession.  Honor, courage, duty, respect, integrity, loyalty, justice, selflessness, self-confidence, and self-control are discussed in detail.  Brennan’s idea of a firefighter as warrior is that of a self-aware, realized human being who puts the needs of his community before himself.  He writes:


“The ideal of a fire service warrior is a noble one.  It is an acceptance of duty and responsibility to humanity.”


Chapter Two discusses physiology and psychology as it relates to firefighting.  It begins with the nervous system, metabolic effort, heat stress, and the vestibular system, then moves on to discuss the psychological response that occurs when we do something so against our instinctual nature as walking into fire.  He discusses the fight or flight response and what we can do to overcome it.  He also expounds upon sleep deprivation, and lastly he explains how we can overcome our physiological and psychological response to adversity by “conducting honest self-assessment and using the techniques of conditioned response, mental rehearsal, realistic scenario-based training, and breathing control.”


This chapter explained experiences I had had, but never fully understood, like why I became momentarily disoriented when entering an upside down SUV completely blacked out on a dive (the vestibular system!) or why when you get a call in the middle of the night, you sometimes feel like you can”t wake up entirely (you were woken during stage 3 or 4 of NREM sleep).  Knowing the physiological reason behind our sensations seems comforting somehow and gives us another tool to overcome our responses.


Chapter Three discusses physical and mental readiness, what it is and how we attain it.  Brennan believes firefighting physical fitness is not an option.  It is our duty.  Firefighters enter an extreme environment inhospitable to life and they exert themselves at a level equivalent of a Navy Seal.  We owe it to our brothers and sisters, our families, communities, and ourselves to be ready.  He then goes on to discuss different fitness movements and types of strength applicable to firefighting.


In the second half of Chapter 3, Brennan discusses resiliency and the philosophy of Stoicism as it relates to mental readiness.  This is my favorite part of the book.  I have always been extremely drawn to the concept of resiliency and why some people have it while others don’t.  Why do some people overcome events to thrive that others are crushed and destroyed by?  Is it simply the intangible spirit or are there certain foundations already laid that support a person in their time of greatest adversity?  There are many books written on resiliency and Brennan only touches on it here, but it applies directly to firefighting and is a quality we all must learn to embody if we are going to thrive in this field.


Clearly, Brennan is a deep thinker and he knows how to put his ideas into writing.  He writes simply, clearly, and honestly, often drawing upon his personal life to illustrate an essential point.  I am only half way through, but so far, so good!   The second half of The Combat Position (chapters 4,5,&6) will cover tactics, fireground decision making, and “making the turn” to a fire service warrior way of life.  I look forward to reading and will share Part II with you when I am done.