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A firefighter’s guide to stress and well-being

The natural practice of mind and body awareness provides a powerful foundation for personal strength


A majority of short-term stress is dealt with quickly, whereas negative, long-term and poorly handled stress can lead to physical illness and mental disorders.

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While words like happiness, joy, satisfaction, relaxation, contentment and peace are associated with well-being, this conditional state has no real concrete definition or tangible scale of measurement. Any proof of the existence of well-being is measured in its absence and described in one word – stress. Because stress is everywhere in a firefighter’s life, it has become a major topic of identification and measurement for the fire service.

Studies have shown stress to be the leading cause of firefighter death, whether from heart disease, cancer, stroke, injury or depression. Stress can be chronic or acute and can manifest itself anywhere, anytime and for a myriad of reasons.

Clinically, we know that stress is a physical response to change and is, for the most part, unavoidable. A majority of short-term stress is dealt with quickly, whereas negative, long-term and poorly handled stress can lead to physical illness and mental disorders.

A firefighter career is riddled with emotional trauma

We understand that in a decades-long career, firefighters experience death and disaster, each call building on the next, which eventually triggers a stress response not always beneficial to the individual or to the next situation encountered. It is how we deal with stress, whether by individual incident or an accumulation, that determines our career longevity and, ultimately, our health and well-being.

As long as there has been conflict, trauma and tragedy, there has been the desire to stabilize and restore the well-being of responders. As far back as World War II, officers would gather their troops after a particularly gruesome battle to share stories of bravery and sacrifice, thereby bringing the soldiers together and boosting morale. This shared experience left them better prepared to cope with the next battle. Today, armies around the world still use a form of debriefing when dealing with incidents.

The modern version of psychological debriefing for first responders was initially developed and coined by a former firefighter and paramedic in 1983. Dr. Jeffrey Mitchell, along with a colleague, was the first to refer to traumatic events as critical incidents, and the process of coping with them as “critical incident stress debriefings.”

During the mid-80s, emergency responders who did not respond with what was considered a typical reaction to trauma were considered pathological. Mitchell promoted the theory that structured therapy sessions in the company of peers who had experienced event-related suffering would lead to the normalization of those affected.

Other intervention philosophies stemming from differing academic approaches emerged during the 90s. This made for trivial debates, with several flavors of the week, while emergency responders in need of psychological intervention were lost amid a lack of consistent assessment, diagnosis and treatment.

Modern stress-reducing standards are still lacking

Today, we know more about stress than ever before and have specifically-designed programs to lessen the effects that stress can produce on an individual. Stress management – whether through education, therapy or shared experiences – is creating positive and productive results by identifying and controlling stress in its various manifestations. Despite the progress, however, there are still no viable standards or administrative offices overseeing such specific services.

For example, the FBI’s Law Enforcement Bulletin can only describe their “best practices” when it comes to providing psychological support to their employees. Agencies and organizations can describe what they do, but no one has any way to systematically monitor and empirically evaluate outcomes. What little information does emerge is rarely shared outside individual administrative practices.

Psychology is an inexact science at best and, by its own admittance, the medical community cannot apply universal standards to such a diverse and delicate discipline as helping caregivers with intermittent or continuing stress. What is precise, however, is the number of individuals who need critical incident intervention and care.

It falls on the shoulders of emergency service providers to find effective methods for evaluating, standardizing and organizing first responder stress management programs. All levels of authority must rid themselves of egocentric statistics and territorial hoarding, and boil it down to what works and why. As members of emergency services, it is ultimately our responsibility to provide healthy and productive responders for all communities. It is our duty and our bond.

Body mindfulness is important to stress reduction

When it comes to common sense solutions, modifying personal behavior can be productive in increasing a sense of well-being and diminishing the negatives associated with stress. Clinical tests involving visualization, deep-breathing techniques, bio-feedback and various forms of exercise and meditation have been proven to be effective forms of self-help. For example, the practice of yoga can create an awareness of breathing techniques that can help lower anxiety.

The natural practices of mind and body provide a powerful foundation for personal strength if not subverted by unnatural relaxation techniques such as drugs or alcohol. Remember, unlike artificial methods, the art of relaxation is to increase awareness while at the same time, letting the body release its tension. Masking awareness is not a solution for alleviating stress.

The basics of eating right, exercising and rest go a long way in building a defense against the negative effects of stress. Understanding our reliance on socialized behavior and sharing our professional experiences through specific programs, such as debriefing sessions or personal counseling, are critical steps to providing the help needed by many in emergency services.

Culturally, we have gone from a belief in the universal victim to the presumption of a human being’s capacity for internal strength and well-being.

A sense of well-being gives us strength to face the day, energy to accomplish any task and provides an enduring sense of life’s purpose. It can be found in the breath of a child or on a long walk. We find it in music and art every day. It is celebration with family and friends. We know what inner peace is, even if we cannot define it.

Today, we see the importance of well-being and the effects of stress in a new light. Whether you agree or disagree with the specifics of various intervention techniques, the reason for their existence is clear; emergency service professionals are under stress and we, the caregivers, occasionally need help.

Jim Spell spent 33 years as a professional firefighter with Vail (Colorado) Fire & Emergency Services, the last 20 years as a captain. He helped create the first student/resident fire science program west of the continental divide, formed the first countywide hazmat response unit and was on the original Colorado Governor’s Safety Committee. As founder of HAZPRO Consulting, LLC, Spell advised businesses on subjects ranging from hazard analysis and safety response to personnel development and organization. His writing won six IAFF Media Awards. Many of Spell’s articles are available by podcast at His last book was titled “Boot Basics: A Firefighter’s Guide to the Service.” Spell passed away in April 2024 after a short battle with cancer. His last four articles detailed his cancer journey.