Part II of III Finding Comfort: Working the Second Most Stressful Job in the Nation

In part one of Finding Comfort we covered the importance of recognizing the symptoms of chronic stress. The second part of this series covers assessment, prevention and ways of creating comfortable spaces to encourage relaxation at work and home. The human body was made to effectively respond and react to stress but not for an extended amount of time. When the body is left in a suspended state of stress response it doesn’t take long for the body to begin lacking in other important response areas. If not maintained properly, stress can easily transition from a necessary, healthy 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.

“One of the greatest things about the fire service is the friendship and “family” that develops out of the time spent with people who in all other professions would simply be ‘co-workers’. I’ve been working 24 hours a week (sounds better than 1 day) for almost two and a half years at the Cordelia Fire District. I love it, and I love the people I work with… Our shift is the same day of the week, every week, and when you spend 24 hours a week with a group of guys, you get to know them [really] well. My crew and I are very close and I can tell you that we have each others back under any situation. There is a very real kinship that develops between a crew. It’s not perfect either. We all have our quirks, but you live with those things. It’s the combination of good, bad, (and a whole lot of ugly) that make a person who they are… and when you can appreciate that total package and love that person for all they are, you’ve got a brother (or sister).” Writes John Sauberman, a firefighter who lives in the suburbs of San Francisco, California in his blog Journey to Firefighter. He continues on about his experience and crew by writing “When this happens with a crew it’s a beautiful thing. A cohesion builds, molds and adapts to become a smoother and more efficient operating machine. Firefighters who know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and who perform faster and more effectively because they don’t have to speak as many words to coworkers (because they know what each other is thinking) or check to see that other tasks are being done correctly (because they’ve trained on it before), can be more effective in their own jobs. When this point is reached, you’re on solid ground, and that’s when things get fun.”

A large part of being a firefighter is brotherhood and camaraderie. Without this mindset of having one another through tough situations, it’s difficult to form a bond as a team to see calls and responsibilities through to the best outcomes. As part of a firefighter’s responsibility, being aware of your own mental and emotional health is just as important as assessing your team members and their state of mind. It only requires a few moments out of every day of duty to observe and be self-aware. Take a step back and analyze your thoughts and emotions as well as what you see, feel and hear from those working around you.

Naturally, most firehouses are filled with Type A personalities. The go-getters who are eager to be more competitive, urgent and self-critical. Quick fixes are often the go to for coping mechanisms for high-stress environments, especially among the Type A’s most like to pursue careers in firefighting. This ‘quick fix’ mentality also unfortunately often leads to self-medicating with drugs or alcohol. This behavior is not ideal but unlike negative thoughts and the emotional turmoil of bottling up stress and trauma, usage abuse is an observable behavior and should never be taken lightly among peers within a firehouse. This is one of the most observable and important triggers to be aware of among your team.

In a publication, Trouble In Mind of the NFPA Journal written by Janet A. Wilmoth, she discusses new awareness of behavioral health in fire services. She writes, ‘responders routinely encounter incidents that include severe injuries and death—including suicides. “Our people are the ones who take people down [from hanging], and they see suicide firsthand when they clean up the gunshot wounds,” says Elizabeth Crowe, coordinator of human relations for the Chicago Fire Department. Emergency responders also face the risk of exposure to cancer-causing chemicals, the trauma of mass-casualty incidents, and, recently, of becoming the targets of active shooters. The risks faced by emergency responders are more varied than they’ve ever been. With those risks comes emotional stress. Firefighters have historically been reluctant to talk about those stresses, in part out of fear that they could be stigmatized as weak or vulnerable. While they may consider talking to peers about these kinds of problems, many emergency responders maintain an almost perverse aversion to therapists or other “outside” professionals who, some responders believe, understand neither the work nor the stresses they face.’

It is apparent that some of the only relief emergency responders may ever have is the care and concern of their peers. It is each person’s duty in a firehouse to be aware of the mental state of those around them. Being observant also requires you to be in a healthy mental state yourself. This requires the ability to prevent exposure to excessive stress to become debilitating. Learning the triggers and finding ways of preventing chronic stress can lead to a healthier and more enjoyable lifestyle for everyone involved.

When you or someone within your firehouse begins to resort to self-medicating… in one way or another, take the time to step back and associate it with the beginning stages of an unhealthy road to chronic disease. Prevention includes self-awareness and finding healthy coping mechanisms such as positive reframing (i.e. creating humor), seeking support within your comfort zone, maintaining a healthy weight and finding ways of relaxing (if only for a few moments) at work and home. Although everyone has different ways of coping with stress and difficulties throughout their home life and career, these are general tips that can always improve overall mental health.

Creating a stress reducing space at work and home can be achieved with comfortable furniture and some easy reading materials. Avoid using technology for a few moments, practice stabilized deep breathing and let your mind rest. Learning to practice this for just a small amount of each day is challenging at first, especially when your body is used to being in a constant state of stress arousal. But this daily practice can enhance memory, reduce blood pressure, promote better blood flow, strengthen abdominal and intestinal muscles and most importantly- reduce stress. We easily forget how important it is to take care of our own bodies first and foremost before attempting to help others. It is your responsibility to encourage and create a space that feels and promotes healthy practices within a firehouse. Whether it be by creating a comfortable lounge area to enhance social interaction and encourage communication among team members or providing a separate room for each team member to have a few moments to relax and reflect, encouragement of this behavior is essential for the wellness of your firehouse.

In part two we have discussed assessment, prevention and understanding the importance of recognizing and treating symptoms of chronic stress. In part three of Finding Comfort: Working the Second Most Stressful Job in the Nation we will focus on the importance of proper recovery from severe and chronic stress.