When it comes to stress relief firefighters need their fair share. After all, they have to deal with long fire seasons, budgets, and legal concerns. If that isn't stressful enough, they also have to deal with the stress the job places on their body and health.
Stress Firefighters Face
In an article written by Brian Sharkey, Theron Miller and Charles Palmer for Wildfire magazine, they revealed the following information regarding stressful jobs and its relationship to heart disease and other health problems:
"Stress, tension, and reactive behavior patterns have been associated with heart disease, hypertension, immune system suppression, and a variety of other ills. The emotional response to life events is mediated by structures in the brain, including the hypothalamus. When something excites or threatens us, the hypothalamus tells the anterior pituitary gland to secrete adrenocorticotropic hormone, a chemical messenger that travels to the adrenal cortex and orders the release of hormones such as cortisol. The hormones are necessary for the body's response to stressful situations. In this context, stress is understood as anything that increases the release of ACTH or cortisol."
The release of certain hormones, such as epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinepherine, stimulate the fight-or-flight reaction. Epinepherine makes the blood clot faster and increases blood pressure. While this is a good thing if a person is in a fight, it is a bad thing for people who have to do this over and over again at work. When most people are running from a fire, the firefighters are running directly into it.
Clearly, firefighters have more stressful jobs than most people with sedentary ones. This type of work increases the amount of stress hormones released and therefore we can expect that the incidence to stress related diseases to be higher in this group of people.
Fire Department Problems
Firefighters and paramedics who work with them on the same team experience similar levels of stress. The stress is so great in these jobs that many firefighters and paramedics quit after five to seven years, just short of their 10-year pensions. What would make these individuals quit their jobs? In one word - stress.
On October 31, 2005, the Philadelphia Daily News listed the following demands and statistics the fire department presented to the city during a labor dispute:
- "Creation of a stress-relief program to deal with the widespread "burnout" problem that drives the average worker out after seven or eight years, well short of qualifying for a 10-year pension. A union consultant said stress levels resemble "what you would see coming out of Vietnam."
- "An agreement to allow those who work two 10-hour and two 14-hour days a week time to eat lunch or dinner. There are no scheduled meal breaks at present, the union says."
- "The Fire Department made 255,000 runs in 2004, and 200,000 of them were medical and not fires," said union official Gault. "We have under 300 paramedics, meaning we're already short at least 50, and 106 of them have applied to get out and become firefighters."
- "Since the Police Department stopped providing medical transportation a decade ago, the Fire Department has been billing those who call 911, or their insurance companies, for services. In the year ended June 30, the city received $23.8 million in such payments, according to the City Controller's Office".
To date, the fire department still has not resolved the labor dispute, yet they are required to serve the city since they provide a necessary life-saving service. The problems found in the Philadelphia emergency response system are similar to the types of problems found in fire departments around the country.
Stress Relief Firefighters Need
So, what can be done to give stress relief firefighters need so they remain healthy?
It is hoped that people who work for a fire department can reach agreements with the city that they work in so that they receive breaks during their shifts. Breaks are needed to relieve tension during long periods of constant calls for help.
Exercise is one way to help relieve stress. Whether it is walking, running, lifting weights, or other physical exercise such as playing sports, any form of exercise helps to reduce stress and improve physical abilities and health. This leads to a reduction in work-related injuries and can minimize how stress affects health.
Additional assistance may be required to help fire department employees reduce stress including seeking help from a therapist or psychologist. Many firefighters suffer from secondary post traumatic stress disorder from being in close proximity to individuals they have saved from certain death. By reliving the traumatic events they are increasing the amount of stress they are under.
Fire department personnel need the support of their community. Community members should understand that people who work in these stressful jobs need breaks and ways to relieve stress so that they will be ready and able to help people in a time of crisis. When these people aren't given the proper consideration, the end result may be health problems, burnout, and in some cases, they will quit their jobs. When this happens, the fire department becomes understaffed, and calls for assistance may not be answered in a timely manner.