Stress Management - A Firefighter’s Perspective
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Trance Personnel Consulting Group
TPCG specializes in training individuals and organizations to understand, identify and retrain stress patterns that un
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I had the pleasure of gaining more insight into a firefighter’s world recently during an interview with Bryan, a Firefighter/EMT/HazMat professional from Texas. It seems painfully obvious to me that first responders, no matter what the nature of their stress, need preventative wellness programs to keep them productive and in a rewarding long-term career.
Bryan, like many firefighters, deals with survival threats on a scale most people don’t consider. Each time a call comes in he prepares as though it is a critical incident. And while it’s true that the occurrence of critical incidents is small, there is no way to predict that as he suits up. At the onset of a call comes a flood of adrenaline, which increases his reaction time. Bryan arrives on scene pumped on self-made chemicals. If the situation warrants, he responds as a superhero—saving homes, memories and lives. If the incident is benign, the adrenaline has no where to go; and he leaves the scene pumped but unable to use his skill set. In either scenario the adrenaline must return to a normal, sustainable level for him to come back to physical, emotional and mental equilibrium. This looks cut and dry, but the stress reaction is cumulative which adds a complexity to the healing process. Adrenaline levels don’t always return to normal, thus creating a need to spike higher the next time. If Bryan doesn’t reach equilibrium for any reason then his nervous system holds the stress and builds on it the next time. It might be years down the road when a seemingly small incident sets him off into a depression cycle—or worse.
For Bryan to have done a good job and get validation of his professional worth, someone has to suffer or be in harm’s way. Firefighters use gallows humor as a coping mechanism most people don’t understand. The lay person may think it callous that Bryan jokes about the uneventful call, or the disappointment he feels responding to “just a smoking toaster oven”. But many lay people don’t need others to suffer mortal threats in order to have done a good job at work that day.
Bryan’s stress is compounded by the different responsibilities he has as an EMT. Being bound by medical protocol means his options in a crisis are limited. It is his ability to follow these protocols, think quickly and creatively, and respond calmly under pressure that decides if a person lives or dies. Bryan deals with loss that sometimes has no justification or closure.
Firefighters and EMTs are heroes whose need to appear strong and in control still dominates the profession, making it difficult to openly ask for help. And while the buddy system works very well for one’s overall mental well-being, it is not a foolproof plan for wellness. Bryan maintains a dire need for preventative stress management and emotional survival training. He sees burnout first hand, and clearly identifies gaps in his own stress management methods. It’s Bryan’s description of his profession that highlights parallels to the law enforcement world. Although the nature of the stressors differ logistically, the result of unmitigated stress is the same: avoidance, repetition compulsion, depression, damaged family relationships, harmful coping habits, and sometimes suicide.
I am deeply grateful that Bryan took the time to share his experience with me, so that I may continue to expand my understanding of first responders and their unique situations. TPCG is committed to providing preventative stress management and emotional survival trainings to those individuals who sacrifice their lives to save others.
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