9 sources of firefighter stress

Firefighting was crowned most-stressful job; understanding what makes it so is key to reducing that stress

When I read the recent article that declared firefighting to be the most stressful job in the United States, I remembered a conversation I had long ago with a friend who was a paramedic with the private ambulance service in town.

We were talking about stress, and he said, “I don’t know why everyone always talks about going on calls as being stressful. That’s the fun part of the job. Dealing with company managers, that’s the stressful part of the job.”

He was only partly kidding. Of course there are emergency calls that cause stress for first responders. All firefighters have at least one story about a call that really got to them. But firefighters are also often in a better position to deal with that kind of job stress as they have a built-in support group among their crew, where they can talk things out, make rude jokes, and find ways to move on.

This is not to say that firefighters don’t suffer from stress. They do, but the sources of stress go far beyond just the occasional disturbing emergency response.

9 sources of firefighter stress

Based on years of working with fire departments across the country and many hours of conversation with firefighters of all ranks, I offer a list of some of the other sources of stress firefighters face.

1. Shift work

When I was single, working 24-hour shifts was fantastic. When I had a family, shift work became much more difficult to manage. Partners of firefighters who are not in the emergency services often feel like single parents and may resent being stuck doing all the work at home when the other is on shift.

For firefighters in relationships with other emergency responders, finding reliable childcare for 24- or 48-hour shifts is a real challenge. And working opposite shifts can take its toll on any relationship.

2. Sleep deprivation

Studies show that a large percentage of firefighters are chronically sleep deprived. This lack of quality sleep over time can contribute to physical and mental issues including immune system problems, more frequent accidents, changes in mood and temperament, and poor decision making.

3. Inadequate training

Well-trained firefighters are confident and tend to make good decisions. They work well in teams. Poorly trained firefighters will either feel fearful or as if they have something to prove.

The result can be either holding back when action is needed or dangerous freelancing. Both outcomes are bad for the organization and dangerous for all involved.

4. Technical problems

Gear that doesn’t fit. Tools that don’t work and are not replaced. Apparatus that is always breaking down when you need it most.

Firefighters are resourceful by nature and the occasional breakdown will be seen as a challenge. But chronic problems in this area will lead to the feeling that department leaders don’t care about those who are doing the work in the field.

5. Bad crews

You’re stuck with these people for 12, 24, or 48 hours. So having coworkers who get on your nerves can become a source of real stress over time. These behaviors may not be deliberate — the dorm snorer, the talkative political extremist, the close talker with bad breath.

But if a crew cannot work through its differences, the result can be a source of dread before every work shift.

6. Malicious coworkers

There are people who annoy you by accident. And then there are the ones who focus on making life miserable for others.

These behaviors range from just being an inconsiderate jerk to outright harassment. At all levels, the stress is considerable for all involved, not just the person who may be targeted at any given time.

7. Inconsistent policies

One person has an accident with a truck and he’s verbally counseled about it. The next person who has a similar accident is suspended for three days without pay.

One firefighter becomes pregnant and is given an alternate duty assignment for the duration of her pregnancy. The next woman who gets pregnant is told that no such assignments are available.

Policies are supposed to create a sense of order and consistency in an organization, but when they are applied unevenly or based on individual preferences, the result is that no one can predict what will happen in any given circumstance. And that is a real source of stress.

8. Poor leadership

It all comes down to this, doesn’t it? When firefighters trust their leaders, from company officer on up, they feel more secure.

They have faith that their leaders will make decisions with everyone’s best interests in mind. They believe that decisions are fair. They see their leaders as good role models and they respect them.

But when trust and respect are absent due to leaders behaving badly or being poorly prepared for their roles, the entire organization will be stressed.

9. Those bad calls

A child who has been beaten to death by an abusive parent. The sight of a body that has fallen from the 10th story of a building. The smell of a badly burned person recovered from a fire.

These are hard things to experience, and many firefighters will benefit from some intervention after these tough calls. Many departments have different levels of support in place from peer teams to formal debriefs. The key to success with any intervention is to make sure that what is done helps and does not add to the stress already existing.

Stress is part of any job, and firefighters may have more than their share. But there also may be a tendency to focus on the stress that can develop as a result of difficult emergency response while other sources of stress might be completely overlooked. The best leaders look at mitigating all forms of workplace stress, and bravely look in the mirror as they make that assessment.

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