Human Tune-Up


Published: June 20, 2018

On every fire apparatus, there is a multitude of tools and equipment that must be used and maintained. If this equipment is not cleaned, serviced and cared for properly, it may fail or not last very long. The same goes for people. A firefighter deals with mental and physical fatigue nearly every shift and must regularly practice self-maintenance.

Fire departments are replete with individuals who exhibit a take charge, control-oriented mentality; comfortable in the role of rescuer. First responders are generally altruistic, fearless and intrinsically motivated individuals who may occasionally struggle to identify when it is time to take a break for self-care. Additionally, industry stigma prevents many from seeking mental health services as the culture often interprets it as a sign of weakness. Due to this ‘man-up’ culture, little has been done to address trauma and depression with first responders, even though they are five times more likely to suffer from symptoms than the public. First responders are more likely to suffer from mental illness for a variety of reasons. The most obvious perhaps are the core duties of the job, such as running into burning buildings and providing triage to wounded victims. To compound an already stressful field, the rotating work schedules add another layer of challenges, specifically from lack of sleep. It never fails, as soon as you doze-off the alarms sound and back on the engine to respond to a call but even if it’s a quiet night around the firehouse, the quality of sleep is never equivalent to adequate sleep required. Long nights without sleep deprives our bodies of important neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine that affect mood. Rotating shifts and being on call can also make it difficult to eat regularly and healthy, same as the challenges of adequately exercising; both compounding the difficulties of achieving balance in the body. Furthermore, low rates of pay can lead to financial hardships for some first responder families.

All the challenges of the job can easily manifest depression and post-traumatic stress disorder which can externalize in emotional, behavioral and physical reactions. Fatigue, memory loss, personality changes, mood swings, weight gain or loss and disease-prone immune processes are all identifiers of stress and more so, stress that is not being managed well. Stress can be compared to pain tolerance in the manner that we all have different comfort levels. Something that might affect you greatly may not be the same for a co-worker. This is important to understand as the stigma of taking care of ourselves mentally is not widely supported in the industry but teasing or downplaying each other’s feelings is prevalent and just as damaging. It’s important to respect that everything is relative and be mindful of how you react to others situations or grief. The interesting aspect to unravel is first responders focus on helping others in any and every way possible, and in the fire industry, there is a two-in two-out rule to ensure no man is subjected to danger alone. However, supporting each other with mental health needs is often snickered at by those that built a profession on helping people. It’s an interesting dynamic and one that should change.

On average, 100 firefighters die each year in the line of duty, most often for physical struggles leading to cardiac arrest which is why standards for physical health are emphasized. It should also be known that even more die from suicide. It’s time to make a purposeful change to the culture of the industry and start by giving yourself a tune-up.

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