By Crawford Coates

Mindful Responder

Presented by Calibre Press

The First Responder’s guide to enhanced performance, improved situational awareness, & tactical focus.


What is Mindfulness

Mindfulness is one of those terms—overused, misused, hyped, hated, loved, etc. But it’s the term we have and it’s the term we (most of us) use. Basically it means being open to the moment, in full appreciation of its miracle (even when it’s not how you would have wished for the moment to be). It turns out that an awareness and curiosity in the moment seems to have positive reverberations throughout life. This has been realized, and embraced, by military, sport, business, and scientific leaders. There’s a huge untapped role for mindfulness to play in public safety.

Dr. Ellen J. Langer of Harvard University wrote her first paper on this concept in 1972. For her, mindfulness is appreciating what is new and novel in any given situation. It is akin to child’s play. But it is worth noting that the implications of her research show very serious implications for health, wellbeing, and performance. In fact, the Federal Airline Administration has embraced her concepts, all while replacing mindfulness with situational awareness to better appeal to that audience. It is Jon Kabat-Zinn who is most closely associated with this term in the public eye. His program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), combined with his many books, articles, and public appearances, have made his efforts something of the baseline in current research and practice. His 1991 book, Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness paved the way for mindfulness’ acceptance in popular culture. Besides being adopted by dozens of hospitals worldwide, MBSR-inspired efforts have been embraced and implemented by such diverse entities as U.S. Special Forces, Google, and the Seattle Seahawks (and championship Bulls and Lakers), among many others. For Kabat-Zinn, mindfulness means, “paying attention, on purpose, in the moment, as if your life depended on it.”

For First Responders

First responders deal professionally with, and under, stress. As medic Kevin Hazzard had it, “Modern medicine is practiced in the light. … Precise, clean, cerebral. EMS is none of these things.” Same holds true for cops and firefighters, and every other frontline responder. Success in the field can be hard won—and even harder to define. Gun shots, structure fires, people in crisis, competing directives and narratives—this contributes to acute stress, which can impede performance in the moment. 

But another kind of stress deserves our attention equally. This is the chronic stresses of shift work, interpersonal conflict, bad sleep, isolation, poor diet, divisive politics and government work, physical toils, family strains, feelings of betrayal, and so on. These chronic stresses ebb and flow over a career. They also tend to accumulate in stages. They are too often swept under the rug, both by the first responder suffering them and by the system as a whole. “How are you doing?” This question too often assumes it’s answer: some variation of “good.” This isn’t to paint a dim portrayal of American public safety, only to suggest that we might do better, both in the moment and over time. We owe it to ourselves to try. Mindfulness has a role to play.

Potential Benefits

To lust after rewards is the opposite of mindfulness. Following are potential and common benefits, intended to encourage participation. Striving is the desire to be somewhere else. Mindfulness, on the other hand, embodies, with heft and muscle, the moment as it is.

Situational Awareness

First responders are often preoccupied with preconceptions other than, though perhaps attendant to, the call at hand. This is a form of multitasking—being at once in the moment but mentally somewhere else. Multitasking potentially impedes situational awareness and performance. Mindfulness, on the other hand, returns us to reality, to seeing what hadn’t been noticed before, and to skillfully acting and appraising what’s here (OODA).


Top athletes nowadays almost uniformly have “mental coaches.” Mindfulness has become a primary component of this approach. Peak performance: How do you deliver in high-stakes situations? How do you develop self-awareness, rather than self-consciousness? Beyond that: How do you train and prepare for such inevitabilities?


Mindfulness explodes the dichotomy of physical vs. mental health. It informs how we eat, how we train, how we approach aging, and so forth—all from the vantage of where we stand now: We are mostly good as we are. True improvement proceeds from this vantage.


On the frontlines, you can’t be competent without being compassionate. It’s more than just a job. You see so much over the course of a career—not just death and violence, but frequent fliers who jam up the system, burned out colleagues, and a system that often seems uncaring or broken. You do what you can, which is to serve public safety, the best you can. Service is at the core of what you do, and mindfulness

How Is It Practiced

Many ways! If we take Langer’s approach, we can be mindful (or mindless) in any aspect or moment of our lives. We become mindful by constantly approaching life with curiosity and a sense of opportunity. Go for a walk: What is new that I haven’t seen before? Face a challenge: What are you not seeing? How can the challenge be reframed? It’s very much akin to Col. John Boyd’s OODA loop—that is, a state of routine reappraisal.

For most others mindfulness practice is embodied by meditation. In fact, my friend George Ryan of the LAPD, who taught meditation for years at their Police Science Leadership program, doesn’t like the term mindfulness. For him meditation is what we must learn. There are many forms of meditation, but most research has taken Kabat-Zinn’s MBSR as the premise. (Secondarily, Transcendental Meditation, or TM, has been studied in relevant fields.)

Meditation, in sum, is a means of focusing the mind with training over time in a state of relaxed awareness. I recommend focusing on the breath and body. In my experience formal meditation is complimentary to Langer’s approach to mindfulness. As you meditate regularly, you begin to carry that state of mind—relaxed awareness—throughout your day. You will begin to realize its many benefits.

Note: As you learn to meditate it is essential that you start slowly and without expectations. First responders tend to be active people with active minds, and slowing down and sitting still will be a challenge for many. Just as you wouldn’t go to the gym for the first time and expect to benchpress more than your bodyweight, give meditation a shot with great self-compassion and patience. While I can describe its rudiments, truly experienced meditation teachers are great advocates as you develop your practice. Not everyone has, or should expect, the same experience. A good teacher knows this and meets you where you are with kindness and care.

Other Books You Might Like

Street Survival

Street Survival continues to focus on techniques designed to affect the way you prepare, plan and react to real situations. These tactics can help you survive if, despite your best efforts, violence erupts. Street Survival focuses on understanding the latest in tactically safe methods for approaching high-risk situations and falls into four broad categories.

The Gift of Fear

In this empowering book, Gavin de Becker, the man Oprah Winfrey calls the nation’s leading expert on violent behavior, shows you how to spot even subtle signs of danger—before it’s too late. Shattering the myth that most violent acts are unpredictable, de Becker offers specific ways to protect yourself and those you love. Learn to spot the danger signals others miss.

Left of Bang

You walk into a restaurant and get an immediate sense that you should leave. You are about to step on to an elevator with a stranger and something stops you. You interview a potential new employee who has the resume to do the job, but something tells you not to offer a position. These scenarios all represent LEFT OF BANG, the moments before something bad happens.


How do you deliver in high-stakes situations?

– Mindful Responder


How do you develop self-awareness, rather than self-consciousness?

– Mindful Responder


How do you train and prepare for such inevitabilities?

– Mindful Responder

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