Firefighter Stress Management

Category: 
Firefighter Health First-Aid
Page Last Modified / Reviewed: 
Dec 2020

 

The job of wildland firefighting can often be stressful and sometimes traumatic.  In the wildland fire environment, conditions can take a toll on mental health.  It is vital to mental fitness to address feeling overwhelmed by stress and trauma before they become a mental health issue. Mental fitness is just as essential as physical fitness for duty.

Mental Health Continuum Model chart with four categories of Healthy, Reacting, Injured, and Ill.

Mental Health Continuum Model. (Click on image to enlarge.)

AWARENESS

Stress Injuries can be caused by:

  • A Life Threat: Due to an experience of death-provoking terror, horror, or helplessness.
  • A Loss Injury: A grief injury due to the loss of cherished people, things, or parts of oneself.
  • A Moral Injury: Due to behaviors or the witnessing of behaviors that violate moral values.
  • Cumulative Stress: Due to the accumulation of stress from all sources over time without sufficient rest and recovery.

RECOGNITION

Stress Size-up, monitor yourself and others for:

  • Hazardous attitudes and stress reactions.
  • Behavior changes (not talking, isolating, outbursts, increased use of substances, or making mistakes).
  • Troubling feelings (fear, anger, anxiety, sadness, guilt, or shame).
  • Thoughts of or mention self-harm or suicide.

 

MITIGATION

Stress First Aid:

  • Shrink the stigma – talk about it!
  • Provide opportunities to calm:
    • Take a tactical stress pause.
    • Refocus; identify what really matters.
    • Try tactical breathing or similar techniques.
    • Get additional time off if needed.
  • Get help.  Just like in a medical incident, a higher level of care may be necessary.
  • Reach out to friends, peers, loved ones, etc., for support.

Burnout Model. Seven smaller circles with words surround a circle in center with arrows point to center.Burnout Vs. Stress

Stress is often caused by a feeling that life is out of control.  Stress can be brought on by long work hours, conflicts at home, or working under pressure. Typically, once the situation resolves itself or changes, stress lessens, or may disappear entirely.  If not resolved, stress can impact your physical and mental well-being.  Having to choose between work, family, or other priorities can become a long-term stressor.

Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It can take place over a long period.  Burnout might occur if your work seems meaningless or if there is no end in sight under difficult work conditions. Burnout may happen due to a disconnect between work and life outside of work.  Long fire seasons away from family, shortage of resources, gaps in key leadership positions, and communities threatened or lost can all contribute to burnout of wildland fire personnel.  Additional contributing factors to burnout can be a culture that is pressured to be as tough as possible, not show weakness, or to speak up when you need help.

ACTION:

Discuss what signs indicate stress in a person? How can you as an individual, or you as a crew, mitigate stress and prevent burnout?

 

Additional Resources

Incident Management Situation Report (IMSR)
Incident Response Pocket Guide (IRPG), PMS 461
NWCG Standards for Helicopter Operations, PMS 510
RT-130, Wildland Fire Safety Training Annual Refresher (WFSTAR)
Interagency Standards for Fire and Fire Aviation Operations (Red Book)
Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center

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