Fit for duty: How to be a resilient responder
Fit for duty does not always mean being physically fit; it also refers to being resilient to the stress and emotional impacts of the job
By Anthony S. Mangeri, Sr., Director of Strategic Relations for Fire and Emergency Services at American Military University
What does it mean for today’s firefighter to be fit for duty? Fit for duty does not always mean being physically fit; it also refers to being resilient to the stress and emotional impacts of the job. Individual resilience for duty refers to one’s ability to prepare for — and recover from — stressful events so a responder can return to normalcy.
Unmanaged, constant exposure to stress and adversity can impact relationships, cause health issues, affect safety at work, and even lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and suicide. How prepared are you to manage physical, mental, and emotional strain?
Resilience begins with understanding the stress you face. Responding to the needs of a community during crisis can have a lasting effect on the way emergency responders process the world around them. Being a resilient responder starts with a commitment to taking care of yourself by sleeping well, eating well, and living well.
Start with a Good Night’s Sleep
Resilience begins with reporting for duty mentally and physically ready to respond. This starts by being well-rested. Getting adequate sleep is a critical component of one’s physical health and mental wellbeing and it is essential to resilience.
Sleep helps the brain function and process the stress of the world, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI), part of the National Institutes of Health. Sleep also prepares your brain for your duty day by increasing your attention span, decision-making abilities, and creative problem-solving skills.
NHLBI also points to the value of sleep in managing physical wellbeing and repairing the impact of stress on the body. When you sleep, the body heals and regenerates. For example, when you sleep, your body works to repair the impact of a variety of stresses on your heart and blood vessels.
Sleep deficiency may impact your overall resilience. A lack of sleep can affect emotions, behavior and one’s ability to cope with changes. This can lead to elevated levels of stress and has been linked to depression, risky behaviors, and even suicide. Individuals who have continued lack of sleep may suffer from other complications such as an increased risk of heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and even stroke.
Take Time to Eat Right
We have all heard that you are what you eat. To be resilient responders need to eat a healthy, well-balanced diet and avoid excessive amounts of caffeine and alcohol. Caffeine can interfere with sleep cycles and exaggerate the impacts of stress on the body and mind. Excessive amounts of alcohol or caffeine can also increase blood pressure, according to the American Heart Association. Instead, firefighters need to drink large amounts of water to stay hydrated.
While stress initially may reduce appetite, stress eating can also become a real problem, according to an article in Harvard Health. Prolonged exposure to high stress triggers the body’s survival mechanisms, which includes an increase in appetite. If your body perceives that the stress is ever-present, it may cause a continuation of appetite. Stress eating can lead to the overeating of comfort foods that are high in fats and sugars, which can cause weight gain and lead to obesity.
Stress can also change the type of food we desire. Several studies have shown that “physical or emotional distress increases the intake of food high in fat, sugar, or both.” Foods that are heavy in fat and sugar may interfere with the area of the brain that identifies stress. These comfort foods may reduce stress but create cravings for what may be unhealthy choices.
To counteract the cravings for unhealthy food choices, firefighters need to focus their food choices on fruits and vegetables and limit the intake of foods high in fat, salt, and sugar. Drink water and exercise to lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
Engage your Peers, Partners and Friends
Having healthy relationships is a critical component of a personal resiliency strategy. Being mentally prepared for duty includes having the ability to process and discuss our experiences with people we trust. Strong relationships help responders maintain a positive and calm outlook. It is essential to have the support and assistance of those around you to be resilient and have the ability to recover from stressful events.
The American Psychological Association (APA) released an online brochure that can assist individuals in building their resiliency. Two factors that they associate with resiliency are communication skills and the capacity to manage strong feelings and impulses. While an individual can build these capabilities alone, having relationships allows peers, partners and friends to be part of their support network.
Also, being there for others in need can be beneficial to building personal resilience. When you have strong relationships with others, you can recognize changes in their personality and behavior and they can do the same for you.
No one is immune to the physical and emotional impacts of stress. Just as physical conditioning takes time, building a resilient lifestyle takes time. However, it is an essential component of assuring fitness for duty.
About the author
Anthony S. Mangeri, Sr., MPA, CEM, EMT has more than 30 years of experience in emergency management and public safety operations. Currently, he is the Director of Strategic Relations for Fire and Emergency Services at American Military University. Anthony is on the faculty in the School of Security and Global Studies. He also serves on the Fire & Life Safety Council of ASIS International and Vice-President of the International Association of Emergency Managers Region 2.