National Wildfire Coordinating Group

2019 WOR Day 5: Muscle Memory

June 30-July 6, 2019

This Week of Remembrance is dedicated to all those who have fallen in the line of duty and is intended to serve as an opportunity to renew our commitment to the health, wellness, and safety of wildland firefighters.


Graphic of a brain lifting a barbell of weights.

What does Muscle Memory mean and what does it mean to us as firefighters?

Muscle memory by definition is “the ability to reproduce a particular movement without conscious thought, acquired as a result of frequent repetition of that movement. Typing, for instance, relies heavily on muscle memory"

Without conscious thought….let’s look at the benefit of that best of our abilities at all times on the fireline.  This is an example of a positive implementation of muscle memory. The strength of muscle memory in learning the 10 and 18 is that we are implementing those steps throughout the day without conscious thought and these lessons help us to make better decisions on the fireline.

“Over time, with continual practice, actions as complicated as riding a bike, knitting, or even playing a tune on a musical instrument, can be performed almost automatically and without thought.” – Oxford University Publication

Practice develops muscle memory and this can work to our benefit on the fireline.  While we may not be aware of it, the body is implementing muscle memory continually.  While we are repeating actions, which at first we need to think about to execute correctly, our brain is building shortcuts resulting in our ability to do the action much quicker and with less conscious thought. Actions that we train to do, practice repeatedly and implement on the job, become second nature to us. The other benefit of this muscle memory is that once we have it, we can be thinking about other things…like the gorilla (remember that video from a couple of days ago?) for a moment.

The RT-130, Wildland Fire Safety Training Annual Refresher requires each firefighter to practice deploying their fire shelter.  The Jolly Mountain Incident within an Incident Training Rapid Lesson Sharing (RLS) concluded that "Training builds great muscle memory that will be invaluable to performance during periods of high stress" such as the stress we will feel if we are ever in a deployment situation.

Consider the action involved with the E in LCES. Just identifying escape routes isn’t enough, it’s walking that escape route that develops muscle memory making it routine.  Taken from the GAP Fire Tree Strike RLS- "Always have a PLANNED escape route. Make a physical connection to it by walking it out. Put some muscle memory into your efforts.” This practice could be the difference in reaction time and outcomes.

Preventing Complacency

  • ANALYZE small mistakes, not just the serious ones.
  • Think you might be too complacent?
    TRY placing visual reminders in your line of vision such as a photo of a loved one.
  • DISCUSS the hazards of your job with your crewmembers.
  • SHADOW someone in a different job than you as they identify hazards.
  • LOOK for signs of complacency in other people. This will increase your awareness of it.

Can muscle memory result in complacency? An article from the Lessons Learned Center on Complacency discusses how the routine of doing something every day can create blinders.  Muscle memory built from the repetitive action such as doing the same drills several times a week can cause us to miss the subtle changes that can escalate into significant events.   So how do we change our muscle memory? Active effort is required.  The guide on the left “Preventing Complacency” provides some suggestions for how to adjust what we see, how to actively change our muscle memory, and function with more awareness. Exercise your brain daily, alert yourself to the hazards that may have become invisible, and come off the line safely and successfully each shift.

How do you and your crews develop muscle memory? Has muscle memory ever “failed” you at a critical point? What are some examples of negative muscle memory?

 Purple ribbon symbol

How can YOU Honor through Learning?

The topics, review, and resources for the NWCG “Wildland Firefighter Week of Remembrance” have been contributed by the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center, the NWCG Leadership Committee, and many other field subject matter experts.


Week of Remembrance
Page Last Modified / Reviewed: 
Aug 2023

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