20 Questions with Christopher Brennan of Fire Service Warrior

“20 Questions” is a new segment to FireCritic.com. In it, I will be featuring other fire/EMS bloggers, instructors, writers, and people who intrigue me.

The questions will differ with each “interview” and the answers to the questions will be posted verbatim. If you have someone you would like me to include in this column please let me know in the comments. If you would like to be the subject of “20 Questions” please let me know.

The inagural post of “20 Questions” features Christopher Brennan. Brennan runs “Fire Service Warrior” along with some other great firefighters. I have been intrigued by the site, the following it has created, what FSW stands for, and the movement it has started. I appreciate Chris taking the time to take part in this new column.

Christopher Brennan

1.    How long have you been in the Fire Service?

FSW: In May of 2012 I will begin my 16th year.

2.    What is your current assignment (apparatus, firehouse)?

FSW: I am a career Firefighter and currently hold the tested rank of Engineer.

3.    What departments have you worked for or been a member of?

FSW: I began in 1997 as a Paid-on-Call member and have held part-time and career positions with a variety of departments in the South and West Suburbs of the Chicago area.

4.    Your blog Fire Service Warrior seems to have created a substantial network of like minded firefighters. How do you measure your success?

FSW: I measure success by the feedback we receive.  At FDIC I had a firefighter come up and say “Thank you,” because he partially attributes achieving his fitness goals and losing a substantial amount of weight to the information he has found on our website.  Several times a month we receive an email from a firefighter who shares that the things he has learned or the motivation he has taken from our message has helped him improve. I know most websites base their  concept of success on statistics and analytics, and we check them, too, but the fact remains that for me it is the feedback we get from those who are using the site that makes me feel we are successful.

5.    What are some of your goals for FSW?

FSW: Our goal is to be a resource, an opportunity, and a community for firefighters who are prepared to thrive on the fireground so they can protect the lives and property of their neighbors.  We know full well that responding to building fires is generally not the largest percentage of our duty; however there is no more threatening environment on the planet than the interior of a building that is on fire.  If we can grow our personnel to thrive in the high stress, dynamic, and time compressed world of a building fire then we can prepare them to excel at any other mission we have.  I hope that we can get that message out through well developed articles, videos, and courses.

6.    You have created a community at Fire Service Warrior. The core of that community seems to be fitness and smart aggressive firefighting. Is that a decent synopsis of what you are doing?

FSW: I think your synopsis is the public perception of what we are about.  From our perspective we have three domains that we strive to master and integrate: Mindfulness, Fitness, and Training.  Mindfulness includes our mission, our Ethos, and preparing ourselves emotionally and psychologically to thrive under challenging circumstances.  It’s really the most important piece of the puzzle.  Fitness is making our bodies ready for the very real physical demands of the fireground.  The science on this is pretty well understood now: we have to have the same metabolic capacity as a Navy SEAL or a professional Boxer, and we have to be able to function with the effects of heat stress, sympathetic nervous system responses, and often contend with sleep deprivation.  Fitness is a means of maintaining long term health and wellness and making ourselves more resilient to these stressors over the length of a career.  Training comes down to being able to execute our fundamental fireground skills with a high degree of fluency.  That fluency translates into efficiency on the fireground which in turn increases the capability of the whole fireground team.  The trick is integrating these three domains into the daily experience of your life so that in one way, shape, or form, everything that you do is helping prepare you for that moment when you are called upon to protect your neighbors from the effects of unrestrained fire.

7.    What post(s) on FSW are you most proud of?

FSW: Brian Brush’s post “This is My Ladder” is one of the best training pieces I have ever read. Nate Jamison’s “The Fire Service Warrior Significant Other” touches on a critical component of our lives.  John Shafer’s “An Ounce of Prevention” visits an often neglected aspect of our Ethos.  Gary Lane’s “Stay the Course” is a great motivator.  Those four really ring out in my mind.

8.    You work out most days of the week. Do you have personal goals you are trying to meet? Are you training for any events or competitions?

FSW: Currently my fitness program is geared towards maintenance and preparation. I am not striving to be a competitive athlete; I want to be prepared for the rigors of the fireground.  That being said I do like to find ways of testing my physical capacity to keep myself honest.  So far this year I have participated in the CrossFit Games Open and identified some key weaknesses I want to develop; completed a Firefighter Combat Challenge event at FDIC where I posted a time of 3:22:03 (3 seconds slower than my PR time); and I ran a 5k in 28:28.  I am hoping to compete in another Combat Challenge in Oak Forest this year if my work and travel schedule will allow.

9.    Explain what WOD, GOAT, T-1rm, and some of the other abbreviations mean on your site.

FSW: These are a few of the fitness-related acronyms and abbreviations that become familiar fairly quickly to those who use our resources. WOD stands for  “Workout Of the Day”; GOAT is our term for working on a fitness skill you have trouble with, 1rm is a one-repetition maximal lift.

10.    If someone were to come to your site and be interested in following/participating in the workouts, what is the best advice for getting started in the FSW workouts?

FSW: Click on the Fitness Tab at the top of the page.  When I rolled the programming out initially in June of 2011 I wrote a pretty extensive piece that gives a lot of advice on how to get started. They key is to START.  You are only going to learn the skills by trying them, and being a student of fitness to make sure you are doing things correctly.

11.    Your book “The Combat Position – Achieving Firefighter Readiness” was published last year. How long did it take to write?

FSW: I was 34 years old when I turned the manuscript in so… 34 years?  Honestly, I would say that it was a five year process in one way or another.  I had the initial idea about trying to develop the Fire Service Warrior Concept in 2005 and started doing a lot of reading, research, making notes, and generally letting things incubate.  In 2007 I wrote the first draft outline and started writing articles.  Several of those were bought by Fire Engineering and appeared on-line and in the magazine. In 2008 I launched the website and used it to try out material I was developing for the book.   In 2009 I pitched the book to PennWell and at FDIC 2010 we signed the deal.  At that point the book was 25% written.   I finished the writing in four and a half months.  The challenge for me isn’t getting the words on paper, it is the time that I need to saturate myself with information and for ideas to incubate. Once the illumination happens, it become mechanics.

12.    Is there another book being written now?

FSW: I think there is. There is a premise that I am working with, a void that I see in the current fire service texts, but I don’t know yet what it will look like when I’m done.  This is sort of like asking a band when their next album is coming out.  They had their entire lives to work on the first 12 good songs and folks want to see the next 12 seven minutes later.  I imagine that whatever the next “book” looks like you will be seeing its gestation on fireservicewarrior.com over the course of the next several months, or maybe years.

13.    You recently held the FSW Fundamentals Seminar. What is it? What do you see this seminar turning into in the future?

FSW: The FSWFundamentals Seminar is the first step in a five step professional education program. Students come out and spend 24 hours over two days being exposed to the core concepts on FSWMindfulness, FSWFitness, and FSWTraining.  They take classes, participate in discussions and tabletop drills, work on functional skills, are exposed to Stress Inoculation Training, do six workouts, and are mentored and coached the whole way through.  The program actually begins 21 days before you show up with a series of preparatory assignments that include readings, reflections, and workouts to get your mind and body ready. Our first class is now into what we consider to be a Guided Learning phase where participants are reading, practicing, and developing their skills.  They exchange ideas in conference calls and share what they are learning.  In the future, we will be rolling out two additional seminars, each of which builds on the previous one.

14.    What are the biggest issues facing firefighters today?

FSW: That’s a very broad question.  If we look at the whole of the North American fire service I will say the state of the economy and the corollary call to “do more with less.”  There are only two ways to do more with less: either develop a technological solution to a problem (like airliner cockpits replacing the Flight Engineer with a computer) or maximize the capacity of the individual in the arena (like the Special Operations Command does).  I don’t see technology reducing our work load in the fire service, if anything it is increasing the physiological demands.  To me that means that we have maximize the capacity of the individual then if we want to be able to effectively and efficiently serve our neighbors while maintaining a relative degree of safety.

15.    What do you think the solution is to the problem of overweight and obese firefighters?

FSW: Overweight and obese firefighters are simply a reflection of an overweight and obese society.  We have a society that doesn’t eat real food anymore.  We consume an absurdly large amount of processed food or items that contain refined sugar.  It’s killing us.  The best solution I can think of is to mandate that ALL firefighters have an annual physical and that for those who will be called upon to work on or in a building fire, that their physical include a cardiac stress test meeting the standards of NFPA 1582.  If your folks cannot pass a physical because of a deficit in fitness or because their blood panel is out of balance because of dietary concerns then you aren’t doing them a favor by ordering them turnout gear with a bigger waist.

16.    Do you diet? If so, give us an example of how you eat to be healthy.

FSW: I try to make good choices and eat real food.  What is real food?  Things that you can hunt or harvest are real food.  Do I make choices that stray from that at times?  Sure.  I’m not going to live a life based on being neurotic about food.  To me the key is this: make your meals “clean” (meat, vegetables, some fruit, a little bit of nuts or seeds, healthy fats) as often as possible; eliminate the refined sugar; eliminate the processed foods; forget what the drive-thru lane looks like; drink water (if you weigh 200lbs you should be drinking 200oz of water a day).  Strive to do this 75% of the time.  The other 25% of the time live like it is your last day on earth and you are at a Bacchanal.  Go out and read “Good Calories, Bad Calories” or “The Paleo Diet”.

17.    In your career thus far, what are you most proud of? 

FSW: Having The Combat Position published.

18.    Name some men or women who you look up to and why.

FSW: I wrote a pretty long piece about this topic called “Who Are Your Heroes?”  Top on my list though is Lt. Michael Murphy, USN, Medal of Honor (Posthumous).  For anyone who knows Lt. Murphy’s story it is one of selfless service, dedication to his men and his mission above himself, and aspiration to the highest of virtues.   The last few years I have done the CrossFit Work Out “Murph” in his honor as close to June 28th (the day of his death) as I can. The workout is a 1 mile run, 100 pull-ups, 200 push-ups, 300 squats, and a 1 mile run.  In the fire service I have always looked up to Bob Hoff (Retired Commissioner Chicago Fire Department and now Deputy Chief Carol Stream FD). Chief Hoff was an Instructor of mine and I lay out my experiences from him in my book.

19.    What will you be doing at FDIC this year? What about other conferences?

FSW: I taught a four hour workshop at FDIC 2012 and I will be submitting to teach FDIC 2013 along with the 2012 Nebraska Society of Fire Service Instructor’s Les Lukert Conference. I do more teaching directly for departments, FOOLS Groups, and the like, than I do present at conferences, but I am always open to coming out and presenting on the topics I love.  I can be reached at info@Spartan-Concepts.com.

20.    Add anything else you might want to add that I didn’t cover?

FSW: I think one of the biggest things that folks in the fire service would benefit from is coming to see our trade as really a multi-disciplinary field.  We have to deal with chemistry, physics, decision making, human behavior, psychology and physiology, boredom and fear in alternating doses, and a host of other dynamics.  We need not have graduate degrees in all these fields, but I think that having a working awareness of them is critical.  That takes looking to what is happening outside the fire service and seeing how we can apply that to what we do.  There are no good studies on skill attrition for firefighters that I am aware of, but studies of physicians and nurses  retaining cognitive and psychomotor skill for ACLS or ATLS can give us a sense of how long you can go without throwing a ladder or pulling a hose line.  The second law of thermodynamics tells us that all closed systems will move to disorder (entropy).  Your mind works the same way.  If you have quit learning,** then your thought process will devolve to disorder over time.