(This is part one of a three part series.)
Pull out your phone and search the phrase “most stressful jobs.”
It is of no surprise that the results show fire fighting just below high-ranking military personnel — i.e. the President of the United States. Known as the second most stressful job in the nation, fire fighting is an all consuming, demanding and incredibly intense career. Its commitments require each team member to carry a heavy load… that’s without considering most firehouses are understaffed. In order for any team to work at their greatest potential it is vital that each person be physically and mentally in good health. In this three part series I will go over how, for firefighters, the combination of providing multi-faceted public services, responding to life threatening calls and keeping up operational requirements on a daily basis is a work load that, if not well maintained, can produce inescapable chronic stress.
Chronic stress leads to a laundry list of physical ailments which all lead to impaired judgment.
Impaired judgment leads to poor decision-making and performance. This circumstance is far from ideal when handling the lives of others. Not only are you a danger to yourself and your team when suffering from chronic stress but you are also a threat to any life you attempt to save.
If not maintained properly, stress can easily transition from a necessary adrenalin pumping reaction to an unhealthy long-term illness. Excessive stress can manifest as symptoms of digestive problems, loss of appetite, high blood pressure, migraines, depression, extreme anxiety and even heart failure. It is crucial for firefighters to recognize the symptoms of chronic stress, how to prevent good stress from turning deadly and how to mentally maintain a healthy lifestyle. These factors help firefighters work more effectively and can help prevent stress from becoming a debilitating and life-threatening disease.
The United States Fire Administration’s records show that the probability of a firefighter dying from a stress-related incident is three times greater than the probability of dying in a vehicular accident. The constant pressure of the job, continual exposure to traumatic experiences, and exposure to suffering and death of fire victims all make firefighters susceptible to the emotional weight of line-of-duty incidents.
In a research study done by Mark C. Shantz at the Eastern Michigan University Ypsilanti Mi. School of Fire Staff and Command, he writes about his surprising findings that firefighters are often stressed by their own living conditions. Raymond J. Navarre, previous Human Resources Officer of the Toledo Fire Department, describes the environmental necessities of a healthy firefighter in a few main points.
- Need for private space — the need to be away from the public and other firefighters.
- Need for privacy — the need to have an area that is personal.
- Need for a balance between the institutional quality of the firehouse versus the family atmosphere and the firefighters’ relationships as members of the firehouse.
- Need to control the noise and media pollution — the need for quiet relaxation, study and sleep.
- Need for relaxation — need for furnishings and surroundings that are physically, mentally and psychologically stress reducing, or at least not stress promoting.
Lawrence N. Blum, known for his research on firefighter stress and an Informational and Economic Science Professor at Cornell University wrote, “Stress and Survival in the Fire Service; How They Live and Die.” In his writings he addresses the responsibilities, tasks, work demands, and activities performed in fire fighting and how they are referred to in the term psychosocial stressors. These stressors achieve a physical and psychological impact upon the individual performing those tasks. The responses that the individual makes to psychosocial stressors encountered in fire fighting are referred to in the term, stress response. In the stress response, the brain undergoes activities and changes in its adaptation — for the purpose of survival and equilibrium — to encountered events or circumstance. The “fight or flight” response is “fueled” by excretion of the hormones, adrenaline and noradrenaline.
Of critical importance in the human emergency response is the adrenocorticotropic hormone, or ACTH. ACTH results in the cerebral cortex losing approximately two-thirds of its functioning, to permit the limbic system — the part of the brain which is the emergency response — to activate the “fight or flight” response.
The impact of ACTH’s effect upon the cerebral cortex for a firefighter can be observed in their experience of slow motion, “tunnel vision,” muffled sounds, gaps in memory of the incident, detail errors and episodes where the firefighter’s report of the incident is not corroborated by the physical evidence. Pitman (1986) has demonstrated that the brain becomes conditioned by either repeated encounter with stressful circumstances — or by a single traumatic event — so that it will, with repeated encounter with psychosocial stressors, begin to react under emergency conditions, even when no actual emergency occurs. “Therefore, repeated encounter with psychosocial stressors which initiate stress responses in individuals will develop a condition in which the body is chronically and continuously in a state of psychophysiological arousal.
Examples of the effect of such a condition would be seen in chronic elevation of blood pressure with no evidence of congenital circulatory defect, chronic gastrointestinal distress, multiple awakenings, abrupt change in mood patterns, work habits, withdrawal from normal activities, emotional reactions inappropriate to circumstance, inability to defuse after call is cleared, high risk behavior and psychophysiological distress.
Environmental Necessities of a Healthy Firefighter
- Need for Private Space
- Need for Privacy
- Healthy Balance within Fire House
- Need for Quiet Time
- Need for Relaxation
Blum continues on by stating that the job’s high demands will not necessarily result in health consequences, it is only when an intensely demanding job is paired with unpreparedness that it yields adverse health problems.
Unpreparedness and setbacks happen as a result of impaired judgment and decision-making, which lead back to poor mental and physical health.
In order for a firehouse to fulfill their duties properly and also meet such high-level demands without fault, each member should take the time to routinely be self-aware, relax, decompress and follow the five points previously discussed. If your firehouse is not properly equipped for relaxation and comfortable living this could be a main factor in poor performance and the overall health of the entire team. Consider each piece of furniture in your firehouse to be just as important as the equipment you take out on each call to save lives and fight fires. Not only is it essential to furnish a firehouse properly to encourage healthy living, each firehouse being different, needs furnishings unique to their own facility. Spend the time as a team figuring out what is best and most efficient for your space and what will withstand a lot of use. Consistency is also important, and with the proper durable furnishings your team can have a comfortable, long-lasting area to promote and encourage health and wellness.
Firefighters, when given the proper environment and equipment can be physically and mentally prepared for any situation at any time and as a team save more lives and fight to their fullest potential.
In part one we’ve covered the importance of recognizing the symptoms of chronic stress. Look for the next installment of “Finding Comfort: Working the Second Most Stressful Job in the Nation” where we’ll discuss prevention, including finding ways of creating comfortable spaces to encourage relaxation at work and home.