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Treating invisible wounds: Addressing firefighter stress

Support colleagues to neutralize the negative effects stress can have on firefighter mental and physical health


By Lieutenant Brad Bouchillon, Statesboro (GA) Fire Department

When responding to an emergency, it can be difficult for first responders to know the extent of an injury if a person isn’t showing obvious signs of pain. The same is true when it comes to acknowledging and treating psychological wounds. Unless someone suffering from high levels of anxiety or trauma makes it obvious (fingernail biting, pacing, weight loss/gain, mood swings, etc.), others may not recognize the intensity of their stress.

Whether you are an officer who witnessed a subject lose his life, or a firefighter who ran the routine structure fire only to crawl over a burnt body, public safety professionals are far more likely to experience traumatic incidents than average citizens. Yet, while these worst-case scenarios can be extremely damaging to a person’s mental health, it’s often the smaller incidents – the things that don’t seem as significant – that can build up over time and take a serious mental toll. The ugly truth is that stress is often the tiny snowflake that becomes an avalanche if left unchecked.

Stress can have both cognitive and physical implications if it is not properly addressed. (Photo/Fire Chief)
Stress can have both cognitive and physical implications if it is not properly addressed. (Photo/Fire Chief)

How firefighter stress adds up

Firefighters, law enforcement officers, paramedics and EMTs work challenging schedules. Those long nights without sleep deprive them of important neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine that affect mood. Demanding shift work causes them to miss important family events, like birthdays and holidays, potentially causing rifts in family relationships. Working rotating shifts and being on-call can also make it difficult to eat regular and healthy meals, and dedicate time to getting adequate exercise. Furthermore, low rates of pay can lead to financial hardships. While each of these stressors may not seem significant on its own, together they can weigh on a person. A long night of battling a house fire combined with an argument with a spouse over a missed anniversary and the reality of a looming mortgage payment can add up to high levels of stress.

Identify stress and don’t ignore it

Stress can have both cognitive and physical implications if it is not properly addressed. Weight loss, weight gain, sleep deprivation (lowered energy levels), memory loss, personality changes, and mood swings are all key identifiers that someone is not coping well with their stress.

If you know your people well, these signs can be easy to spot:

  • The guy on the crew who is normally the clown and boisterous is suddenly quiet and isolated? Red flag.
  • A coworker who is normally quiet, is suddenly very talkative or overly enthusiastic? Red flag.
  • And the most dangerous sign is the person whose mood seems to shift dramatically back and forth: A chipper employee who is always positive and punctual, suddenly becomes reclusive and dragging in late, and then not long after, is overly excited all the time and at work 30 minutes early? Bright red flag.

Supervisors and coworkers should keep an eye out for other signs like a sudden lack of interest in a previous conversational topic, such as their favorite football team or a decline in their favorite activity, like hunting or playing basketball. Any indication that the individual is suddenly not themselves should be taken seriously and followed up with further conversations and appropriate action.

Act and follow up to support coworkers

Supervisors and firefighters must take the time to acknowledge when stress is taking a toll on our fellow brothers and sisters. It’s critical to identify signs early and be ready – and courageous enough – to intervene. Sometimes, all someone needs is a listening ear to hear their struggles and to be told that everything will be okay. Other times, they need more. If someone isn’t coping well with stress, recommend they seek help, either through a peer support team, if you have one, or through an employee assistance program (EAP). If they are hesitant to go through internal support channels associated with the agency due to privacy concerns, recommend they seek a professional counselor.

Please remember though, if you are a supervisor, especially a company officer, you should always make the effort to help them, not just provide a phone number and let someone else deal with it. It is critical for you to follow up. If you are able to help them by just talking and listening, be sure to follow up a couple shifts later to see how they are doing. Moreover, if they seek professional guidance, you still can follow up without breeching any confidentiality by asking “Hey, I just wanted to see how things are going since we last spoke.”

And don’t forget about acknowledging your own problems. Sometimes it’s easier to see signs of stress in others than it is in ourselves. That’s why we need to give our colleagues permission to tell us when we’re not acting like ourselves. If someone confronts you about your mood or behavior, don’t get upset or angry. Be thankful that they care enough about you to make sure you’re okay. Listen to what they have to say and spend some time reflecting on your behavior and feelings. Such interventions may prevent someone from turning to drugs or alcohol to cope with their stress or even suicide.

Learn how to empathize

Nothing will shut down a subordinate or coworker more quickly than downplaying their stress and making light of it. Regardless of what you think of someone’s problems, keep in mind that everything is relative.

You may be trying to figure out how to pay for dance lessons and baseball equipment, and get the new nursery together for child number three, while someone you’ve identified as being overly stressed tells you their pet died and on top of that, their favorite character in a show they enjoy was killed in last night’s episode, and when they were going to work a headlight went out. These issues may seem insignificant when placed next to yours, but you must remember not to compare stressors; everyone copes with life differently.

Stress is like pain tolerance – what may be ranked on the pain scale as a 4 to you, could be an 8 to the next guy (or gal). This can be applied to how well people cope with stress as well; the passing of a pet is probably a 3 to me, whereas I know people who would be absolutely devastated and probably rank it a 9. Making an effort to see things from others’ perspectives can make you a more empathetic and helpful person.

Repairing firefighter physical and mental fatigue

On every fire apparatus, there is a multitude of tools and equipment that must be used and maintained. If this equipment is not cleaned, serviced and cared for properly, it may fail or not last very long. The same goes for people. A firefighter deals with mental and physical fatigue on a daily basis and must regularly practice self-maintenance.

Individuals must maintain a level of self-care by partaking in hobbies, spending time with friends and family, exercising and doing whatever else brings them happiness. Without self-care, the wear and tear on the body will begin to take a toll. Sleep deprivation, excessive physical demands on the body, handling personnel issues, dealing with personal issues, and constantly staying up-to-date on training and job knowledge can easily overwhelm anyone.

As firefighters, we often discuss things in terms of strategies and tactics when approaching an emergency scene. During an emergency there are three primary objectives: life safety, scene stabilization and property conservation. These objectives can be applied to our personal lives as well. Stress is most certainly a life-safety concern because of the impact it can have on one’s health and wellbeing. Firefighters can stabilize their stress through self-care and finding ways to manage stressors in a healthy way. Property conservation could be correlated to salvaging the things that make one happy – like partaking in hobbies or engaging in family life. Conserving the things in which we find joy in is crucial to keeping the stress away.

Facing stress, together

In the fire service, there is a rule of “two in, two out.” A brother or sister should never feel alone in any battle they face, on or off the fire-ground.

Regardless of rank or title, it is everyone’s duty to look out for each other. Get to know your people so when something is wrong or off with them, you can quickly identify and address it. Once you do, do not be afraid to confront the issue. I’m often blown away by the fact that we as firefighters can make life and death decisions and run into burning buildings, but so many of us are afraid to approach our peers about things that also have life or death implications. When our brothers and sisters feel unmanageable stress, we must work hard to empathize with them, listen to them and help them repair.

About the Author
Brad Bouchillon has been working for the City of Statesboro Fire Department for 10 years full-time and has held the rank of lieutenant for 4 years. He has also worked as a lifeguard for Tybee Island Ocean Rescue and as an EMT part-time for Screven County EMS. He is married to his wife Megan of 5 years and they have a son, Eli, who is just over a year old. To contact the author, please email IPSauthor@apus.edu. To receive more articles like this in your inbox, please sign up for In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.

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