ReIGNITE Quick Take: Keeping your passion through adversity

Battalion Chief Diane Schroeder explains how maintaining your love of the fire service will take resilience, support and self-care

It is no secret that firefighting is a stressful, challenging and dangerous job. Risk of injury, emotional trauma, cancer risks and a demanding schedule are just some of the difficulties that firefighters face — add a pandemic, civil unrest and mass violence on top of that, and you have a recipe for immense adversity. 

Yet there are more than 1 million active firefighters across the country who have chosen the fire service path, about two-thirds of whom are volunteers, and many stay and serve for decades despite all of the risks and hardships. What keeps them motivated?

Part of it is an incredible passion for what they do — helping people, saving lives and forming bonds with their family at the firehouse. It would be difficult to for anyone to spends years doing something so stressful without having any passion for it.

Love, for a partner or a career, often starts out as a passionate love driven by adrenaline and other
Love, for a partner or a career, often starts out as a passionate love driven by adrenaline and other "feel good" hormones. But over time, and through adversity, one must find the right tools to continue stoking the flames that keep passion alive. (Photo/RedHeadsRule, Pixabay)

But passion alone is not a limitless resource, as Louisville (Colo.) Fire Protection District Battalion Chief Diane Schroeder explained in the IAFC ReIGNITE virtual conference session "Keeping Your Passion Through Adversity" this week. Firefighters must keep "filling their cup" with what energizes and drives them to avoid running on empty, burning out and losing the passion they need to keep going. 

Schroeder explains how firefighters can maintain their passion, even in the face of stress and hardship, first by understanding what passion really means, and then by finding and utilizing the right tools to keep stoking the flames that keep your passion for the fire service alive (no pun intended). 

Notable quotes about passion and adversity in the fire service

"We transition from passionate love of the job to the attachment of the job and this is when we realize that the anticipation and all the excitement that we had for going on lots of structure fires, or the adrenaline rush of the job, may not be what we thought it would be, opening the door to those fears of injury, the mental health challenges, the constant exposure to trauma, the challenges that we being to face both personally and professionally." 

"The problem with 'finding your passion' is it's very similar to 'finding happiness.' It's also similar to finding the Holy Grail. Your happiness is an emotion — you're not always going to be happy, you're not always going to be passionate. When you are focused on finding passion and follow one course until successful, you get a fixed mindset ... Instead of finding your passion it's more about developing your passion and finding your people and taking care of yourself." 

"Building resilience is critical. It's the partner to passion. If you're passionate for what you care about, you will be resilient and you will be persistent. It will also align your passion with your values and the impact you want to have on the greater good." 

"Self-care in mainstream media might be perceived as selfish or pampering or excess. I completely disagree. Self-care is critical to taking care and filing your cup so you can serve your organization and your community and your family."

Key takeaways about keeping passion through adversity in the fire service

Schroeder began her presentation by giving basic definitions of passion ("a strong, barely controllable emotion") and adversity ("difficulties, misfortune, challenges and hardships") and explaining the different types of "love" in both a personal and professional context. Shen went on to identify "passion pitfalls" in the fire services and three strategies for firefighters to manage these pitfalls and keep their passion (and themselves) alive and healthy. 

Passionate love vs. attachment love

How do people who have been married for 30, 40, 50 years or more keep their love alive for so long? Alternatively, how do veteran firefighters who have been in the service longer than some younger firefighters have been alive stay "married" to the fire service for all those years? Schroeder explains that the evolution of love in both marriage and a career in the fire service often follows a similar path — the love that married couples and firefighters feel transitions from a short-term "passionate love" to a long-term "attachment love." 

Passionate love: Passionate love is the feeling that couples often feel when they first start dating, and that can last through the early years of marriage (i.e., "the honeymoon phase"). Schroeder used her parents, who were married for more than 50 years, as an example, telling how her mother described falling madly in love with her father after their first few dates, deciding quickly that she wanted to marry and spend the rest of her life with him.

This is the same kind of love firefighters will feel when they first join the service, when they're fresh out of the academy, in their probational phase or in their first few years on the job. They're enthusiastic, driven and want to spend the rest of their lives as part of the brotherhood/sisterhood that is firefighting. They're extremely passionate ... for now. 

Attachment love: Attachment love occurs after the adrenaline-fueled dreaminess of passionate love begins to dial down, when a spouse may begin to notice the flaws in their partner they may have overlooked before or when the couple faces challenges and hardships that could weaken their relationship. No one is perfect, and no one's life always goes smoothly and according to plan, so this wearing down of the dreamy, idealizing, passionate love is pretty much inevitable. Schroeder said when she asked her mother what the secret was to staying in love with someone for 50+ years through life's ups and downs, she replied, "There is no secret. It was hard work." 

The stresses and challenges of the fire service will also tend to wear down the enthusiasm and confidence of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed young firefighters after a number of years, even though they still deeply care about helping people and saving lives, and about their brothers and sisters. This is when attachment love, for both couples and firefighters, comes in to drill down on what really matters to them, and motivates them to keep going in spite of the hardships, the ups and downs. No longer fueled by adrenaline and other "feel good" hormones like serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine, individuals need to build up a resilience and find new ways to refuel through mutual support and self-care. 

passion pitfalls

Adversity in the forms of safety and health risks, workplace stress, mental health challenges and others mentioned above are some of the ways passion can be worn down for firefighters in general. Other "passion pitfalls" identified by Schroeder include the unique stresses of chiefs and company officers, and the societal messages sent to younger firefighters that could be setting them up for failure. 

Chiefs, officers and the "us vs. them" divide: Fire chiefs and officers can face additional stresses that come with leadership, many of which are related to the divide between different levels of the organization. Schroeder said that chiefs she spoke with described a feeling of "us vs. them" at times, when firefighters view their supervisors as out of touch and unable to do anything right, and vice versa. Schroeder used the phrase, "Hey Chief, can we ... ?" as an example, describing how young and eager firefighters will come in with recommendations for new technology or training programs they feel excited about and become disappointed and frustrated when they're told it is too expensive or impractical. Chiefs, in turn, become frustrated that their firefighters don't understand why certain changes can't be made, and that frustration goes back and forth, creates a "line in the sand" that divides the organization, and wears everyone down. 

"If you don't have a healthy organizational culture you can't have emotional safety, and if you don't have emotional safety you're not going to get the best out of your people," Schroeder said. A lack of communication and mutual understanding between members of the organization creates a passion pitfall that only makes the job harder and less enjoyable. 

False hope: Another passion pitfall is the societal message that reaches all young people at some point, including firefighters, that if they just "find their passion" they will have limitless motivation to do anything. Schroeder says this fixed mindest on the wonders of "passion" sets firefighters up for failure — it leads them to put all their eggs in one basket, "and that basket can get heavy," Schroeder said. Eventually that basket can get so heavy that one may want to give up on trying to carry it all together, and quit the path or career that they used to love and be passionate about. 

Firefighters need to avoid this pitfall by not assuming that passion alone will carry them through everything, and utilize the other tools and sources of motivation at their disposal that will give them the strength to carry that basket to the finish line. 

How to keep your passion through adversity

Schroeder outlined three main ways that firefighters can keep their passion and avoid burning out when the going gets tough, as it inevitably will. Firefighters should build resilience acknowledging and facing the challenges in front of them while keeping focus on what they truly care about, finding the people in their life that will be there to support and guide them through tough times, and practice self-care through the hobbies, mindfulness and healthy habits that will continue to "fill their cup" day after day. 

1. Focus on what you care about, not just what you love: Passionate love in a job or a relationship can send us barreling forward aimlessly to seek whatever triggers those "feel good" hormones. But in order to keep your passion and transition successfully into the attachment love that keeps us going in the long term, we should identify what we really care about, not just what we "love," and be ready keep our focus on that "bigger picture" when things that used to excite us — like our first structure fire — don't seem as appealing anymore. As much as a new firefighter may love the adrenaline of responding to that first major call, as a more experienced firefighter, they will still have their passion for helping the people who depend on them for safety during that call. 

Firefighters also must build resilience by acknowledging, planning for and managing the challenges that will come before them, instead of relying on passion to carry them through. Firefighters can use that focus on what they really care about to guide them in finding the right solution for each problem, rather than ignoring their problems or just doing what feels right in the moment. 

2. Find your people: Human beings are social animals that need connections with other people to stay happy and healthy throughout their lives. Schroeder encourages firefighters to find their "tribe," the people who will understand them, support them and be there with them through the tough times. This includes not only one's brothers and sisters in the fire service, but their partners, family members, friends and colleagues in other public safety professions. 

Schroeder also stressed the importance of finding a mentor, someone who can say "here is the road that I've paved for you and here are the potholes," something Schroeder said she wishes she had had as a young female firefighter. She also encouraged more experienced firefighters to become a mentor for the younger firefighters in their organization, help them to "patch those potholes" and at the same time learn how to communicate and build understanding between generations, to ultimately close that divide that brings everyone at the firehouse down. 

3. Care for yourself: Schroeder said practicing self-care is the most important thing firefighters can do to keep their passion and overcome adversity. If you don't make yourself a priority and care for your own needs, you will eventually become so burned out you won't be able to care for anyone else either. Schroeder outlined several forms of self-care that provide an outlet for stress and a way to refuel so your passion doesn't run dry:

  • Habits and routines: Find something comfortable, familiar and relaxing that will "fill your cup" on a regular basis, such as reading or watching your favorite TV show before bed. 
  • Hobbies: Find an activity outside of work that brings you enjoyment and gives your mind an escape from the stresses of the job, such as a craft, skill or sporting activity. If you don't have any hobbies, don't be afraid to try something new or dabble in something you've always been interested in but haven't picked up yet.
  • Share your story: Sharing your story is a way to both let out some of the pain you may have been keeping to yourself, and to build connections with others who may share a similar story or who can learn lessons from what you've experienced. You don't need to suffer through adversity alone — let your voice be heard.
  • Heal your trauma: Sharing your experience with others is one way to heal your trauma. You can also manage the stress and anxiety from frequent exposure to traumatic situations through "mind fitness," which Schroeder says can include meditation, breathing exercises, staying present in the moment and avoiding worrying about the future and things you can't change. Taking care of your mental health will also benefit your physical health, releasing some of the negative stress that can build up inside the body. 
  • Exercise: The brain is a part of the body, and just as taking care of our mental health can improve our physical health, moving our bodies and focusing on our physical fitness can have a positive impact on our mental health as well. Exercise can help to release stress, and take our minds of the negative thoughts that are making us more anxious. 
  • Get sleep: Sleep is also an important element of physical and mental wellness, and as difficult as it can be to get consistent, sufficient sleep as a firefighter, Schroeder encourages getting as much good sleep as you can to get your mind and body rested and avoid harmful burnout.
  • Have fun: "Laugh, do things that light your soul on fire, have fun, be a kid," Schroeder said. Giving yourself moments to just be happy, including hobbies and trying new experiences, will help to energize you and give you a break from the negative emotions and stress. 

All of this goes toward making yourself a priority — as mentioned before, taking care of your own needs first will fuel the passion you need to be a better friend, partner, caregiver, mentor, community member, colleague and firefighter in the end.  It's easy to put off caring for yourself and saying you just don't have the time to prioritize your own needs, but as Schroeder says: "Instead of saying 'I can't do that, I don't have time,' what if you said 'I can do that, I will make time'? We always make time for what's important."

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