Why are you a Firefighter?

Why are you a Firefighter?

By Rick Markley, FR1 Editor-in-chief

Some of the most fascinating research taking place has to do with how the brain, or mind, works and how it works in concert with the rest of the body. Three recent studies reveal a lot about not only who we are as humans, but about who we are as firefighters.

The first, and most directly related to firefighting, comes out of Iowa State University. It examined how seasoned and novice firefighters made fireground decisions using a simulator.

Researchers were surprised by two things: experienced firefighters had higher levels of stress and took longer to reach a decision than did novices.

Taking more time to analyze the situation is likely a sign of maturity. Taking to heart the heavy consequences of those decisions — increased stress — is likely due to more experience with situations that have gone wrong.

I'm hoping these, or other researchers, find a way to take this study out of the controlled environment of simulation and apply it to real firegrounds. In the end, the better we understand how and why we make decisions, the safer we will all be.

The other two studies look at how our decisions impact what takes place in our bodies at a molecular level — or, in fact, the opposite.

The Atlantic reported the findings of a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The researchers set out to distinguish the effects of happiness and meaning in our lives. In doing so, they looked at the genetic properties of their subjects.

In short, they found those who reported high levels of selfish happiness but low levels of meaningfulness in life had the same genetic patterns as a person who is lonely or under chronic adversity, such as from grief or poverty. The bodies of these individuals respond by gearing up for a bacterial attack, which in the long run can lead to serious illnesses like cancers and heart disease.

Those with high levels of meaningfulness, even with low levels of happiness, had genetic patterns set to battle viruses rather than bacteria.

Ask the "why are you a firefighter" question to a large group and your most common response will be "to help people." Those who want to help others intuitively know that it is good for them, but may not know exactly how or why.

Now, there's evidence that the firefighters' "service to others" mentality is actually changing their genetic patterns for the better — and that's really cool stuff.

The last study, reported on BBC, looked at the impact of selfish versus selfless behavior on human survival — on an evolutionary scale. It involved a high-powered computer running numerous simulations on the consequences of actions that harm others, but benefit self against actions of cooperation that may not benefit self but would mitigate the harm to others.

In short, it revealed the selfish and mean behaviors could only win in the short term and long-term survival depended on cooperation. Researchers theorize that our desire to cooperate does not affect our genes so much as our genes' need for survival dictates our desire to cooperate.

As one professor told BBC: It's not individuals that have to survive, it’s genes, and genes just use individual organisms — animals or humans — as vehicles to propagate themselves."

On the micro level, firefighters need to cooperate to survive and succeed on the fireground — we all know what freelancing leads to. Yet, on the macro level is where this gets interesting.

On the surface, there's nothing to be gained by a firefighter putting his or her life at risk for that of a stranger — at least not in the short term. But long-term survival depends on cooperation. For us, that means gearing up to save someone we don't know, and at times, those we wouldn't like if we did know them. And are we doing this because our genes make us?

We live in a fascinating time when the relationship between mind and body is being increasingly better understood. And that the firefighter mentality is so deeply woven into who humans are is equally fascinating. Now, if only science could connect genetic patterns to our fondness for mustaches.

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