4 strategies to reduce firefighter stress

Firefighter safety is as much about their mental state as their physical state; here's what the company officer can do to boost the crew's emotional hygiene

My previous article looked at similarities in mental health and mental hygiene issues for both military personnel and members of fire and EMS organizations. One of those similarities is the separation from family and friends that are part of the job, be the person a career or volunteer responder.

While the military fighter may be deployed for months at a time, firefighters and EMTs experience periods of separation. These include working 24-hour shifts, working second jobs or two-hatting to make ends meet, being toned out during family functions and attending off-duty training courses.

We all know that the long hours and nature of fire and EMS creates a second family among those who serve together. This second family, while important for the development of unit cohesion and mission success, can lead to additional conflict and mental stress.

It is important to understand that firefighters play different roles in both their first families and second families.

The first family often requires firefighters and medics to fill the roles of spouse, parent, bread-winner and more. The second family at the fire station requires them to fill the roles of an individual and team member to fulfill organizational and mission responsibilities.

Conflict within each of these families and between the roles and responsibilities of these two areas can be a source of conflict and mental health problems for fire and EMS personnel.

House in order
Before officers can be there for those on the job, they have to be there for their families at home. That means truly understanding this concept of two families within their sphere of influence.

A strong first-family life is achieved by developing and maintaining good communication with children and significant others. Maintaining physical health through diet and exercise is also key.

Another important factor is balancing time between work and home. That means being mentally and physically available for family functions like kid's events or date nights.

On the job, the company officer's greatest asset in helping to protect the crew from the mental stresses of the job is being prepared to do the job from the moment they walk into the station until they go home.

The company officer has a responsibility to show up every day in the best possible condition, mentally and physically, and be ready to manage conflict that's going to arise.

Drama club
Those conflicts for the company officer can be with direct reports, between direct reports, with other officers, with other agencies and between the crew and the civilians calling for help.

Unfortunately, in too many fire and EMS organizations the drama in the workplace creates undue stress and tension that breaks down an individual's ability to resist stress. It's an example of how a bigger problem usually has its origins in a series of smaller, seemingly inconsequential events that were allowed to accumulate.

As Ben Franklin wrote under his pseudonym of Poor Richard, "An ounce of prevention is worth more than a pound of cure." A good company officer is also a good prevention officer when it comes to helping the team reduce drama in the workplace so that each individual's ability to resist stress on the job is not whittled away.

Here are four strategies that can make a big difference.

1. Know the terms
Understand the differences between the terms responsibility, authority and accountability. These terms are not synonyms for one another.

2. Provide feedback
Provide regular job performance feedback to individual members of your team. In a study completed by the Harvard Business School — the results of which have been replicated many times over — respondents were asked what motivated them best to do a good job.

The majority of responses (65 percent) were, "frequent job performance feedback from my supervisor." In a follow-up question: "Do you get frequent job performance feedback from your supervisor?" only 35 percent of the responses indicated yes.

3. Set expectations
Create high-performance expectations for your team. Human behavior studies have repeatedly shown that members of high-performing teams suffer less internal stress and respond better under pressure than those teams where the leader didn't have standards that challenged people.

4. Train often
Train, train and then train some more. As a company officer and later as a battalion chief managing company officers, I found that if firefighters weren't fighting fires, they were happier when they were training to fight fires or to perform any of their other required job functions.

Given the heightened state of readiness (most of it in our subconscious) all firefighters have when on duty, a productive physical and mental release, like hands-on training and skills practice, can be a good tool in reducing pre-emergency stress for your team.

If you're already doing these things at home and at work, good for you. If not, give them a try. Just don't try to eat the elephant at one sitting.

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