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Why your department should focus on firefighter resilience

Organizations play an important role in the health and well-being of their individual members – here are 5 ways your department can promote resilience in the ranks


Research shows that social support, in addition to wellness programs and other measures, can help buffer the impact of trauma and protect against negative outcomes.


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By Sara Jahnke for FireRescue1 BrandFocus

It is easy to focus on the negative behavioral health outcomes of being on the job, especially in public safety and emergency response. Rates for those within the range of concern for depression [1] have been found to be as high as 40% among firefighters, and rates of post-traumatic stress [2] can be as high as 1 in 3.

What is often missed – in the headlines and the research – are the people on the other side of those numbers. Given the extremes and traumas that firefighters are exposed to regularly, the fact that more are not struggling speaks to what is working in the fire service.


Individual resilience is an important factor in managing stress and reducing risk for negative outcomes. Resilience is commonly referred to as the ability to push through or recover from traumatic events. Fortunately, there are data-driven ways to promote and train for resilience among first responders.

For instance, in a study by Denkova and colleagues, mindfulness training [3] was found to increase resilience significantly more when tested against relaxation interventions. Social support also has been found to buffer the impact of trauma [4]. These factors, in addition to the standard holistic approaches to health and wellness – fitness, nutrition, sleep – are all protective against negative outcomes.

We are collectively in a stressful time as a nation and a world. Based on a national study, the Cigna Resilience Index found that 78% of people reported stress due to the pandemic, 69% were stressed by economics, and 56% said social justice issues create stress for them.


First responders face even more acute and chronic stressors, as they are on the front line even before patients reach the hospital and in a far less controlled environment. These added stressors mean that focused efforts by both individuals and organizations to promote resilience are more important than ever before.

Resilience building that occurs in individuals does not occur in a vacuum, and increasingly, research is looking to the role that organizations play in promoting or detracting from individual resilience. Among 16,500 participants in the Cigna study, two-thirds of government workers reported less-than-optimal resilience. The key finding: Both personal and workplace factors are significantly related to overall resilience.

As first responders are tasked with doing more, questions for leaders focus on what is truly necessary, and which activities or priorities can and should be brought to the top of the list. Does organizational resilience building matter?

The short answer is yes. It matters very much.

The long answer is that organizational support efforts improve overall behavioral health, reduce burnout and improve compassion satisfaction [5]. The benefits are not only for the individuals – improved employee mental health can also head off long-term challenges that drain organizational resources. Most importantly, investing time and energy into organizational resilience has a positive impact.


There are a number of ways organizations can promote resilience within their workforce:

1. Awareness: Starting the conversation about the role of resilience – both individual and organizational – is an important first step for any organization.

2. Holistic Health Management: Organizations should focus on a comprehensive view of health and wellness promotion among personnel. Being healthy is more than just working out and eating well. Also focus on sleep, behavioral health, moderating alcohol use and stress management, as all these factors interplay. The mind/body interaction cannot be understated, and access to effective programs promote resilience.

3. Relationships and Communication: Encouraging and supporting positive relationships and effective communication are key to resilient organizations, both within crews and between leaders and subordinates. Clear and ongoing two-way communication is beneficial and prevents longer term issues.

4. Supporting Work-Life Balance: Any conversation on generational differences ends up coming around to the fact that many in younger generations place less value on work and their career than on their family and social connections. That might not be all bad. We were not built to be on all day every day. Organizations need to support everyone in their ranks to take a break from time to time to unplug, take those vacation days and spend time with family and friends.

5. Resources: Sometimes all the organizational resilience-building efforts in the world are not enough. When that happens, there must be adequate and effective resources for those who need professional help. Maintain department resources to link people with culturally competent counseling and other support services.

Resilience overall is an important factor for first responders, but it is not a singular endeavor. Organizations and peers play a central role in creating a resilient workforce. Fortunately, it is built into the mission of what the fire service is built on: serving and protecting our communities and each other.

Visit the Cigna Resilience page for more information and resources.

Cigna products and services are offered by Cigna Health and Life Insurance Company or its affiliates. This article is not intended for residents of New Mexico.

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Sara Jahnke, PhD, is the director and a senior scientist with the Center for Fire, Rescue & EMS Health Research at the National Development & Research Institutes - USA. With over a decade of research experience on firefighter health, Dr. Jahnke has been the principal investigator on 10 national studies as well as dozens of studies as a co-investigator. Her work has focused on a range of health concerns, including the health of female firefighters, behavioral health, risk of injury, cancer, cardiovascular risk factors, and substance use, with funding from the Assistance to Firefighters Grant R&D Program, the National Institutes of Health and other foundations. Jahnke has more than 100 publications in the peer-reviewed medical literature. Awards include the 2019 Endowed Lecture at the annual conference of the American College of Epidemiology; the 2018 President’s Award for Excellence in Fire Service Research as well as the Excellence in Research, Safety, Health & Survival Award, both from the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC); and the 2016 John Granito Award for Excellence in Firefighter Research from the International Journal of Fire Service Leadership and Management. Connect with Jahnke on LinkedIn, Twitter or via email.