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‘Buyer beware’: A message from stressed-out firefighters

Firefighters pinpoint their top stressors and acknowledge the impact of stress on the quality of service provided

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Even as departments push exciting Facebook campaigns, educational incentives and pay raises, staffing relief isn’t coming fast enough.

Photo/Bob Graham

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the What Firefighters Want in 2023 digital edition. Download your copy here. And check out the full series here.

Having just worked a long Christmas Eve night, I sat at the kitchen table over a cup of coffee. I was thinking about my wife at home, delaying the kids from opening their presents until I could get relieved. The station phone rang. It was the oncoming battalion chief: “I’m sorry,” chief said, “but we’re short on personnel. We need you to hold over for mandatory overtime today.”

The life of a firefighter has always come with sacrifice. But with today’s staffing challenges, it seems we’ve reached a whole new level of sacrifice and corresponding stress and frustration. As one respondent to the What Firefighters Want survey stated:

“I’m away from my family for at least 24 hours at a time. With the staffing issues, it gets increased to 48, 72 hours. I’ve missed way too many family events for the amount I make. The whole ‘honor and sacrifice’ thing goes out the window when you miss your kid’s 10th game of the season.”

Even as departments push exciting Facebook campaigns, educational incentives and pay raises, relief isn’t coming fast enough. And as the vacancies linger, more responsibilities (and stress) are put on those of us who stay.

We are truly in a perfect storm. And something has got to give.

The age of self-care

As we have adjusted to post-pandemic life, self-care and mental health have been pushed to the forefront of our collective societal consciousness. The priority we once placed on our careers has shifted toward the prospect of flexible schedules and quality time with family. And with plentiful job options, many people are flocking away from any career that interferes with either. “Honor and sacrifice” be damned, apparently.

We are a society that won’t buy a pair of shoes without reading through a dozen online reviews. After reading through the results from the What Firefighters Want survey results, the message is clear: Buyer beware.

Over 2,100 firefighters responded. And the results aren’t great.


When firefighters were asked to rate their stress on a scale from 1 to 10, most respondents were on the higher end of the scale. Approximately 76% of firefighters rated their stress level between 6 and 10, with the most common answer being an 8.

Further, 47% stated that stress from the job is negatively impacting relationships with family; 50% stated that stress is negatively impacting their ability to engage in non-fire department activities (hobbies, vacations, etc.); and 67% state that stress levels are negatively impacting other aspects of health (ability to sleep, time to exercise, etc.)

Feeling the squeeze

At first glance it would be easy to blame the numbers on the insatiable needs of a younger, softer generation. But most of the negative sentiment came from respondents with 10-20 years of service – a stat that applies to me.

Every firefighter looks back on their younger days as the “golden years.” But I feel those of us who came to the job a little over a decade ago have more of a right to that claim. When we started, it seemed like everyone wanted to be a firefighter. We had to compete against hundreds, in some cases thousands, of other applicants to land the job. But as more people have turned away from careers in public safety, we’ve had to bear witness to the emptying of station roster boards. Now that we’re halfway through our own careers – and should be passing on the knowledge we’ve gained to a younger generation – we are being forced to pick up the slack created by the constant turnover. Missing more than our normal share of holidays, vacations and training opportunities just to keep the doors open.


Even the promise of a pension isn’t enough to make some stick around. Retirement loses its power when people begin to question if they’ll be healthy enough to enjoy it when they get there. Stress can kill you. So, it should be no surprise that some firefighters have considered leaving the fire service. What is a surprise is the sheer number.

A whopping 42% of respondents stated that their stress level has caused them to consider leaving the fire service. Leaders, think about that. If your department has 500 firefighters on its roster, 210 of them are considering another career. This cannot be ignored, not only for the fear of losing them from our ranks but also for the message they may be spreading to potential applicants. An agency’s firefighters are their best source for recruitment. If we hope to have engaged, happy firefighters in the future, we must do what we can to make engaged, happy firefighters now. Otherwise, the negative sentiment and messaging will serve as a swift kick to our staffing crisis snowball, only making it roll a little faster down the hill.

An unacceptable statistic

If there is one takeaway from this survey that sent a chill through my bones, it’s this one: 32% state that stress is negatively impacting the quality of service they provide.


For those who answered, I appreciate your honesty. But if I were your officer, I would tell you that any day you feel like the stress from the job may affect your quality of service, you need to call in sick or (if you can) go on vacation. If neither of those work, you may need to take a leave of absence or even consider another line of work.

Stress is dangerous, but so is the job. When your head isn’t 100% in the game, you are creating a bad situation for yourself, your fellow firefighters and the citizens we serve. One simple mistake can drag you and your coworkers into the middle of major litigation, serious injury or even death. Each of us has a personal responsibility to be self-aware and to step back when necessary. No one knows what’s going on inside your head. If you need help, ask for it. Don’t wait for something bad to happen. Because when you choose to put your uniform on in the morning, you accept the responsibilities that come with it.

The root of our stress

So, what is causing our stress. FireRescue1 asked respondents to select their top three stressors.

Approximately 43% of respondents selected poor agency leadership as the number one stressor.

Some see their chiefs as absent: “My administration can’t be bothered to go visit an employee hurt on the job in the hospital.”

One chief actually is absent: “We have no chief, our department is run by the three-headed monster; mayor, city manager and city attorney.”

And some see their chiefs as a bunch of different expletives not suitable for print. But haven’t we always blamed the chief for our problems? Why does this matter more now?

In the past, as long as the chiefs kept their mayors or board happy, they were seen as successful. No one cared if firefighters quit because there was always more where they came from. Not anymore.

Where poor leadership decisions used to lead to minor annoyances such as a lack of uniforms or janitorial supplies, the mismanagement (real or perceived) of this current staffing crisis has led many to wonder how many Christmases, kids’ baseball games and birthday parties they will have to miss while their administration figures it out. Worst yet, what if they never figure it out?

Firefighters took an oath to sacrifice their lives for the sake of others, but none agreed to give up everything worth living for.

Following close behind the top stressor of poor agency leadership were lack of staffing (42%) and personnel management (30%). Considering that the list of options respondents had to choose from included personal health risks, salary and benefits, EMS response, bullying and fireground scene dangers – pretty serious stuff – leaders should take note. To get through this tough time, it’s going to take much more from the front office than conducting business as usual. And it needs to happen now.

What can we do?

Start at home. Talk to your families about the expected sacrifices and decide together if you can handle it. Mandatory overtime is frustrating, but if you can see it coming and make a plan in advance, it certainly loses its sting.

Then, look to your second family, the firefighters around you. Ask yourself, “What can I do for them today?” Maybe you can take an OT shift on their behalf, or take their spot on the ambulance.

We can point our fingers at the big problems all day, but we can’t lose sight of the little things we can do for each other in times of need. If we are indeed a family, we have to act like one. Starting with the fire chief and going all the way down. Not in words, but in action. That is what it’s going to take to get through this.

The staffing crisis didn’t happen overnight, and it will take a long time to resolve. But when a family is caught in a storm, they don’t break apart. They hunker down and hold each other close. After the storm passes, they assess the damage together and they rebuild.

Ben Thompson is a battalion chief in Birmingham, Alabama. In 2016, Thompson developed his department’s first mobile integrated health (MIH) program and shared his experiences from building the program at TEDxBirmingham. Thompson was the recipient of the 2016 Emergency Medical Service Provider of the Year Award and the 2018 Joe E. Acker Award for Innovation in Emergency Medical Services, both in Jefferson County, Alabama. He has a bachelor’s degree from Athens State University in Alabama and is a licensed paramedic. Connect with Thompson through his website