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Chain reactions: How stress and fear can impact decision-making

Following key steps can help firefighters manage stress in order to reduce fear and improve decision-making, both on and off the emergency scene


When not managed, stress can lead to fear. In fact, some people use the same definition for fear and stress: An emotional response to things we cannot control.

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I’ve been thinking about fear lately, specifically the connection between fear and stress.

There is no doubt that firefighters experience more than their share of stress:

  • There’s the physical stress of doing hard work in unpredictable and hazardous environments, plus the accompanying sleep deprivation of shift work.
  • There’s psychological risk in seeing too much of what no one should ever see.
  • Working in close quarters with others can be difficult, especially if one feels like an outsider within the group for any reason.
  • Balancing work and family life can take a toll, even more so in pandemic times when relationships may be strained and children are homeschooling with limited outside help.

When not managed, stress can lead to fear. In fact, some people use the same definition for fear and stress: An emotional response to things we cannot control. When both stress and fear are not recognized and managed, bad outcomes are almost assured.

Fear-based decision-making

I’ve often said that decisions made primarily based on fear are usually bad decisions. I’m not talking about diligence and caution, which are necessary for any good decision-making process. I’m talking about situations in which information-gathering becomes skewed by false evidence appearing real, making it impossible to rationally weigh all factors toward the best decision.

Fear can lead people to make bad decisions in two ways: through inappropriate action or inaction. For example, investigations of police-involved shootings from escalating encounters often cite fear as a factor. Similarly, firefighters may react inappropriately in high-stress conditions, choosing to act or react too quickly without considering all aspects of their situation.

Fear can also lead to dangerous inaction, and not just on the emergency scene. For example, a key reason that harassment continues to occur is that those who witness it are often afraid to speak up and possibly become targets themselves.

How to minimize fear

One of the goals of leadership in the emergency services should be to minimize fear, both on and off the emergency scene. There are several ways to accomplish this:

  • Make it OK to need help: No one should ever be stigmatized or punished for asking for help. Making this change will require a major shift in leadership example and expectations, but it can be done.
  • Prepare: I recently spoke to a law enforcement colleague who was directly involved in a mass-shooting event. He told me that despite the horror of the scene, he did not feel fear in the moment, due to extensive training he and other officers had in responding to such an event: “In a way, it looked just like our training simulations, and we were able to do what we were trained to do,” he shared.
  • Offer support services: Every firefighter should have access to support for mental health-related services. This might include counseling, training, substance abuse treatment, family counseling and other services that help members manage stress. Prioritizing such services must come from the top down in any organization. As one HR professional stated, “Mental wellness isn’t on the table unless employers put it there.” Smaller departments may not be able to offer all these services in-house, but they can still research access to such support systems within the larger community and do the work to be sure that the services available are meeting firefighters’ needs.
  • Allow people to bring their whole selves to work: One source of individual stress is feeling like you have to hide or pretend on the job in order to fit in with prevailing culture or expectation. All members must be welcomed and valued for who they are in entirety. To require people to be less than what they are is waste of resources as well as a source of chronic stress and pressure.
  • Develop and enforce policies: This needs to go beyond lip service. For instance, most fire departments have policies that forbid harassment on the job, but what does this really mean in day-to-day practice? How effective is training on issues of harassment and discrimination? Are things like implicit bias even talked about or simply dismissed as PC culture? Policies should create consistency of expectation and outcome and everyone should be trained not only in what those policies say but why they are important.
  • Take care of yourself: Being a good fire service leader is hard. Those in the position experience the same stressors as their crewmembers do, but additionally have the responsibility for making incidents go well and keeping people safe. These responsibilities extend far beyond the emergency scene. Leaders need support, training and a sense of community to be effective in their roles.

Reduce stress, reduce fear

Fear that results from stress is almost never useful or healthy, either in one’s personal or professional life. Stress on the job is inevitable but can be managed. Reducing stress will reduce fear, and the resulting decisions and actions will be better for it.

Additional resources

Take your department in the direction you want. Get expert advice on how to effectively lead your fire department. 20-year veteran Linda Willing writes “Leading the Team,” a FireRescue1 column about fire department leadership.