On the job stress

There is an awful lot of talk about stress in the fire service and I thought I would share some views here and get your input as well.

The most common thing we all think of is the Critical Incident Stress of a horrible or traumatic incident which has affected us. I think that most departments have come to realize this is a real issue and most agencies have taken some steps to correct and intervene in these situations. It is unfortunate that I still hear of cases across the country from folks who did not have a debrief after a very significant event. I also wonder about folks like myself that went through many years of a career witnessing these events and some of those old demons remain around maybe to pop up another day. There is a whole generation of firefighters still on the job everyday that did not have the benefit of CISM until much later in their career.

What about a different stress on the job? The stress caused by interacting with coworkers. Maybe interacting with folks who don’t feel the same way about the fire service as you might. Doesn’t it frustrate the heck out of you when someone doesn’t take this job seriously? How are you handling that and what do you do to personally cope with it?

When you come in early everyday with a cup of coffee for everyone and you check your equipment as the first task even before coffee, and you are relieved by a guy or gal at 2 minutes before shift change who reports out of uniform and can’t wait to get into the recliner and check their stock report and read the paper?

These are very real forms of job stress that relate to us. We must develop a personal coping mechanism to not be consumed about what is going on on “B” shift and what other folks around us are doing. If we let it it would eat us alive and I have seen a number of good firefighters consumed by this and become bitter and unhappy in their job.

What about the crystal ball stress of the job? That is the stress caused and created by who will become the next lieutenant. “When the chief retires, and captain Smith retires, I am number three on the promotion list and then Freddie will….. “Some folks will sit around the firehouse and expound and predict their career away and cause others to get involved in this frenzy. This serves no useful purpose, promotes talking negatively about everyone, and can whip a group or a shift into a frenzy. The system is what it is, accept it or change it, but theorizing doesn’t do anyone much good except get them all jacked up and bitter and they could have probably done that by themselves. Try to defuse these conversations while they are happening or walk away and do not let yourself become part of them. You will have a lot less personal stress.

Political stress. No matter how big or how small your department is, there will always be some problems with the local politics as it relates to the fire department. The city will reduce budgets, close fire houses, never give you enough manpower, and all that goes along with it. We need to be proactive and we need to be vocal in positively expressing our needs in a professional manner. After we have done everything within our power in the best manner we can, then we need to learn to let it go. I am not suggesting give up and not fight for what we need. What I am saying is if there is no movement, your continued pursuit and discussion in these matters will consume and eat you alive. I have seen good firefighters who no longer are valid in their positions because “This city sucks” or whatever their negative venomous attitude is toward city hall.
Do what you can do, but then get on with continuing knowing you have done your best.

Life Stress. The everyday get the kids around from event to event, the wife is working so you both have a job or maybe even two. There is no family time and any family quality time is spent planning and scheming how to get through the next week. You are both working hard, there are lots of bills and lots of demands and all of that has it’s cumulative effects.

I guess my message this week, was to point out that there are lots of stressors in our life that are affecting us, besides working in a very hazardous and unpredictable occupation. Let’s look at some ideas:

* Realize there are a number of things that could be stressing you in addition to the ones listed above.

* Know the signs of stress. Physical and emotional signs. Talk with your significant other and your coworkers and see if they have noticed any changes in you.

* Intercept these things by being able to recognize some of the things I pointed out. When you see that stuff happening at work and these conversations that will invariably be raised, then either sit back and chuckle, because you won’t be drawn in, or walk away. You will feel a lot better about it.

* Take time to take care of yourself. Go have some fun. Pay the baby-sitter and you and your significant other go out and do something fun.

You can be in control of your own stress reduction policy. Recognition is truly the key.

Pete Lamb
Copyright 2013