Only You Can Prevent Helmet Fires


By, Lindsey Deppen – O2X On-Site Mental Performance Specialist


Picture this.


You are a Naval Aircrewman sitting in the back of a helicopter. You are on a search and rescue mission. You and your team are tasked with finding and retrieving a pilot who ejected from their jet over the Atlantic Ocean. 


Your rescue swimmer jumps out of the helicopter into the water and grabs the pilot (the survivor). The swimmer attached the survivor to the hoist (the cable that is connected to the helicopter). You hoist the survivor into the aircraft. The survivor has injuries and needs medical attention. You begin to lower the hoist to get the rescue swimmer back into the helicopter. Suddenly, there is a hoist malfunction. You have a checklist of critical memory items you need to mentally run through to troubleshoot the malfunction. You also must communicate clearly with the pilots about your every move. The survivor in the back of the aircraft is yelling out in pain, begging you to help them. The weather conditions have begun to take a turn for the worse. The helicopter cannot stay here much longer. Your helmet is filled with a jumble of updates from 4 different radios about aircraft position, fuel status, how much time is left until you need to leave, etc. The swimmer is in the water, waiting on you.


Keeping a visual of the swimmer. Triaging and tending to the survivor. Troubleshooting the hoist malfunction and running through alternate methods of rescue. Executing proper technique on the hoist. Telling the pilots how high or low to position the aircraft. Monitoring the weather conditions. Listening to comms from 4 different radios all screaming in your helmet. Racing against the clock. You must do it all at once. You can’t focus on any one thing. Do you smell smoke? You feel like your brain is on fire. 


Scenarios like this illustrate a phenomenon known as helmet fire. Helmet fire describes a mental state characterized by unnaturally high stress and task saturation, which can often lead to a loss of situational awareness. Put simply, helmet fires occur when there are too many tasks demanding your attention at once, which causes the brain to become overloaded. You are unable to divide your attention among all the important information that needs to be processed at the same time. You may hyperfocus on one specific task while ignoring other critical information. You may lose the ability to prioritize, causing you to jump between tasks too quickly without accomplishing anything. You may completely freeze up, unable to make a decision or take action. In high pressure situations, helmet fires can be deadly.


Naval Aircrewmen are not the only tactical athletes who experience helmet fires. Pilots, firefighters, and law enforcement officers can all succumb to the overwhelm of having too much to attend to at the same time.


So what can you do to reduce the likelihood of helmet fires? There are several strategies that all have the same underlying mechanism. Being able to manage all the information, tasks, and demands in a fast paced, dynamic environment comes down to being able to switch tasks and shift attention smoothly and effectively. 


Strategy #1: Prioritization 


One of the factors that can lead to helmet fires is the mis-prioritization of tasks. The brain functions best when it has one target to focus on. Beginner or novice tactical athletes may struggle to focus on the right target because their attentional processes differ compared to experienced athletes. Experienced tactical athletes can attend to more information than novices, which means they can make faster decisions, can better anticipate future actions, and can recognize patterns more quickly (Abernethy, 2001). One way to train the brain to choose the correct target is by identifying the WIN (What’s Important Now). Get in the habit of asking yourself “what is the most important thing I need to be focused on right now?” With practice, identifying the WIN becomes easier, allowing tactical athletes to improve their ability to prioritize tasks.


Strategy #2: Imagery


Imagery, also called mental rehearsal, is creating or recreating an experience in the mind using all the senses. Mental rehearsal taps into the mind-body connection and can be used to enhance skill development, confidence, and preparation. Mentally rehearsing scenarios and seeing yourself successfully handle an emergency scenario can build your confidence in your ability to effectively act. Imagery can also be used to make tasks and skills feel more familiar. Mentally rehearsing emergency procedures can enhance memory and familiarization with steps and procedures. The goal of mental practice is to make tasks feel automatic – or build up a “muscle memory” for a given scenario. When a task becomes automatic, it requires less attentional resources, which means the mind can better attend to other demands.


Strategy #3: Regulate Fight or Flight


The fight or flight response prepares the body to face a threat. It is our body’s stress response. Physiological changes associated with fight or flight include elevated heart rate, an increased breathing rate, quicker reaction time, and visual narrowing. These changes help you to lock in and perform at your best. When the stress response is too strong, you may experience auditory exclusion, tunnel vision, and loss of fine motor skills. Being unable to physically hear or see the critical information around you is detrimental to performance. Diaphragmatic breathing can be used to regulate the fight or flight response. Consistent practice of diaphragmatic breathing will allow you to have more control over your physiology. A deep breath can also serve as a mental or physical reset in moments of chaos. It is impossible to change the demanding nature of the job for tactical athletes. Practicing these strategies will allow you to think more clearly, make effective decisions, and stay composed under pressure. Think of these strategies as your own personal fire extinguisher.



Abernethy B., Gill D. P., Parks S. L., Packer S. T. (2001). Expertise and the perception of kinematic and situational probability information. Perception, 30, 233–252.



About O2X Specialist Lindsey Deppin:

Lindsey is an O2X Human Performance Specialist and Certified Mental Performance Consultant passionate about helping elite athletes and performers reach their full potential. Originally from Long Island, New York, she received her Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Mount Saint Mary College before obtaining her Master’s degree in Sport and Exercise Psychology from Springfield College. Lindsey is a former collegiate soccer player who earned all-conference honors during her days on the field. She has since switched her athletic focus to competing in sprint and Olympic distance triathlons. Her professional work includes serving as the Lead Performance Expert at Fort Eustis, VA, in the Ready and Resilient (R2) Program. She has also traveled to provide resilience training to Soldiers and DA Civilians across numerous US Army installations, including the United States Sergeants Major Academy at Fort Bliss, TX, the United States Army War College in Carlisle, PA, and the United States Military Academy at West Point.


About O2X Human Performance:

O2X Human Performance provides comprehensive, science-backed programs to hundreds of public safety departments, federal agencies, and the military. O2X works with clients to elevate culture, improve mental and physical wellbeing, support healthy lifestyles, and reduce healthcare costs associated with injuries and illnesses. Driven by results and cutting edge research, O2X programs are designed and delivered by a team of Special Operations veterans, high level athletes, and hundreds of leading experts in their respective fields of human performance.