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Uncertainty begets anxiety: How unknown outcomes amplify firefighter stress

Training is a great way to give firefighters some agency over their work lives, ultimately helping reduce anxiety


Firefighters and other first responders are tired.They want to believe things will be better soon, but they have no assurance it will be so. And despite some good news with vaccine availability, 2021 will surely bring its share of hard times and uncertainty as well.

AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes

Firefighters and other first responders are tired. They’ve been dealing with the risk of COVID-19 for many months, with many of their coworkers getting sick, and some even dying. They have family and friends who are dealing with illness, loss of jobs and income, childcare issues and other challenges. They want to believe things will be better soon, but they have no assurance it will be so. And despite some good news with vaccine availability, 2021 will surely bring its share of hard times and uncertainty as well.

The stress of ‘what could happen’

Psychologists long ago discovered that it is often harder for people to deal with the uncertain possibility of something bad happening versus dealing with the reality of something bad actually happening.

Think about it. Which is more stressful for a new officer – considering what might happen on the first big fire, or jumping on the rig and responding to that fire?

As human beings, we tend to project into the future, imagining all possibilities. We often fixate on the worst-case scenarios. As would be expected, this can lead to anxiety.

But once the tone goes off and you’re on your way, well, then you’re living in the present tense, dealing with the reality you find and being fully in the moment.

The anxiety that may come with uncertain outcomes can create collateral damage. A recent study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology described three groups of people given different instructions. One group was told they would be engaging in an anxiety-producing activity (giving a speech in public). One group was told that they would be in a position of comfort and power, rating those speeches. And a third group was told that they would find out later which of the other two groups they would be in. Then all three groups were given complex problem-solving tasks to complete.

The study found that the group that faced uncertainty about their task made the fewest attempts to solve the problems, even fewer than the group that knew they faced a stressful task ahead. One theory about this result, proposed by one of the study’s lead researchers, is that “people are saving all their energy for the thing they don’t know is coming.”

Firefighters are always in the position of saving energy for the uncertain future. Carrying this uncertainty, which has been magnified by events of the past year, can lead to stress, anxiety and exhaustion.

Feeling out of control is a major source of stress for most people. That is one reason that actual emergency response may be less stressful than imagining difficult calls – you’re taking action to do something about the problem at hand rather than just ruminating on it. Action is the antidote to uncertainty.

Giving people some agency and control over their lives can help to reduce stress. Feeling like you have control and choice in some area of your life, however limited, can go a long way toward making people feel more safe and secure.

Training is a great way to take action toward an uncertain future. Don’t just practice with tools or study textbooks. Apply that knowledge through scenario-based training evolutions and guided what-if discussions. Let all crewmembers take the lead with designing focused, practical training sessions. Let firefighters make some choices and decisions – when to do PT, the training topic for the day, where to drive for familiarization in their district.

Reinforce the commitment to community

The greatest source of strength in uncertain times is a sense of community and higher purpose. Now is the time to reinforce this sense of common mission and each individual’s critical importance in fulfilling that mission. What are some clear examples of the tangible good you have done in the world? What do people want their legacy to be through the job?

People have understandably been getting on one another’s nerves in recent months. It is a function of leadership to rise above petty differences and annoyances and reinforce what matters most: service to the community and to each other.

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.