A few weeks ago I was sitting in a room with other first responders, such as police, fire, ems, dispatchers & jailers over a critical incident that occured at the local county jail, resulting in a fatality in the jail’s sally port. As people began to relive the events that occurred, and talk out loud about their thought process and how they felt, which by the way is extremely important, I began to think back when I first became interested in joining the fire service. So eager to jump into public safety and make a difference, but making a difference can take a toll on you physically and mentally. So what is the hardest part of being a firefighter?
Stress. There are many things that can be seen as the hardest part of being a firefighter and are relative to each specific person such as constant training, a horrible sleep pattern, work life balance, diet, & burnout. Stress is one thing that affects each and every person in nearly all aspects of life. Being stressed for many years in this line of work without a healthy way to cope, will lead to burnout, poor health, poor relationships with coworkers and home life, and can even lead suicide. It’s important to know some of the things you will face getting into the fire service.
Being in a profession where you have a high likelihood of being burned, maimed, injured or even killed, you have to constantly train for the worst possible scenario, so when it does happen, we can perform efficiently and effectively. You are constantly training for medical emergencies, mass casualty incidents, hazmat spills and incidents, structure fires, technical rescues, vehicle extrication, and the list goes on and on. Naturally, a person cannot be a master of all trades, but in the fire service, you train to come as close as possible to it
If you’ve ever experienced going through basic training, any kind of job or academy that needs you to be able to get up and function at full capacity, you might know what i’m about to talk about. By the way, if you haven’t read my article about if the fire academy is harder than bootcamp, check it out here.
When you are working your shift at the firehouse, depending on your department’s schedule, you can be working anywhere from 24 on 48 off, 48 on 96 off, or the classic California swing which would be 24 on 24 off, 24 on 24 off, 24 on followed by 96 off. While on duty, you can never fully fall asleep. Even though you cannot control how deep of a sleep you fall into, but you go to bed knowing if the tones drop, you need to wake up and get on the engine, ambulance or truck within 2 minutes.
What commonly ends up happening is that you can never really “turn off” the jumpiness from being woken up in the middle of the night. A small noise, tug, someone calling your name, your body begins to get up and go for you, almost seeming all on autopilot while you are still waking up, your body is getting dressed and into the apparatus.
The first time in my life that I experienced this was basic training, similar to how I mentioned it earlier in this point. I remember the first day of basic training, long yellow lines on both sides of the sleeping bay. A few weeks into “Tow The Line” calls, it became second nature, just like saying “At ease” or “attention on deck” when one of the drill instructors would enter the area.. Sometimes other recruits, including myself, would prank others by yelling “At Ease” where they were sleeping. You would see them leap out of a dead sleep into parade rest, even before they knew what was going on.
Sleeping this way for months and years begins to take a physical toll on your body. By the time you are able to fully decompress and start to relax, it’s time to report to work again the next day.
Work life balance in the fire service tends to be great in my opinion, but it is one of those types of jobs where the two are kind of merged together. Where work is often taken home, and home is often taken to work. Since this post is about the hardest parts of being a firefighter, I’m gonna tell you about the negatives.
If you have a family, children or even just pets that require daily attention such as feeding them, and making sure they are still alive, you will need to plan ahead of time for this. If you are married, with children, your spouse will have to learn how to operate and function as a single mom/dad with children.
When I say operate as a single parent, I mean being able to fulfill both roles of your marriage while you are gone. When you are on shift, you cannot leave and run home to go take care of something, because you are on call. Unlike most jobs that run 8-12 hours at a time, this is a 24-48 hour commitment in one sitting.
If you’re single with no kids, but you have pets, you either need to get a pet that can sustain itself, or require minimal attention like birds or cats. If you have dogs, fish, reptiles and other animals that need daily food or need to be taken outside to use the bathroom, you have to set a plan in place to accommodate this.
As I mentioned earlier in this post, stress can take a real toll on your body physically and on you mentally. Stress is for sure the #1 killer of public safety employees overall. And unfortunately often leads to suicide. This is why you see it run rampant among our military, in the Fire service, EMS, hospital staff and our law enforcement counterparts.
Critical Incident Stress Debriefings (CISMs) may seem corny, but are so important to help not internalize the images, smells, feelings of something that was very tough. Some of the common stressors that can get to public safety works tend to be severe trauma that occurs to children, it hits home harder if you have children the same age.
When I used to be a police officer, one of the biggest stressors for me was the constant fear of being shot and killed at a traffic stop. It is very unfortunate how police officers deal with this, and many of them die every single day on traffic stops.
It can be very easy to attempt to drown out the stress with alcohol, but that will turn into a slippery slope very quickly, and it has turned out ugly for many public safety employees of the past. Learning to cope with stress is extremely important for the sake of your relationships, marriage, and your job performance and it is something that cannot be neglected.
Building off of the last point, burnout tends to come upon much quicker than they realize it. Many times they don’t realize how burnt out they are, but the people around them do notice the change.
The following are paraphrased questions from Mayo clinic’s website that help you determine if you may be experiencing workplace burnout.
- Have you become cynical or critical at work?
- Do you have to force yourself to get ready and go to work?
- Do you easily become irritable with your coworkers.patients, or the general public?
- Are you having a hard time or lacking the energy to be consistently productive?
- Do you find it hard to concentrate?
- Your accomplishments no longer satisfy you
- Have you started using food, drugs or alcohol in an attempt to not feel, or feel numb?
This isn’t all. There are some significant physical effects burnout can cause. Burnout can be the cause of Fatigue, Insomnia, Sadness, Anger, Irritability, heart disease, high blood pressure, weak immune system, type 2 diabetes.
Some of the causes of burnout can be:
- Lack of control
- Unclear job expectations
- Work life imbalance
- Lack of support
It is easy to ignore these things, but as I mentioned before, it can be hard to recognize or even admit that this can be describing you, but if this is you, utilize the resources you have available to get the help you need. Recognition of these symptoms are that important.
Working in this field and working the hours that we do, can make it very difficult to eat healthy and properly. Luckily there is a kitchen where you and your crew can cook, but it is too easy to get away with eating like crap. I’m not saying you have to become a vegan or mostly eat salads, but try to limit the amount of fatty and processed foods. I personally love going to buffets and loading up on meat and vegetables. Too much of anything is not good, but at least I know I come close and it’s delicious at the same time.
Yes there are many positives in the fire service, but there are a lot of negative aspects of the fire service as well as many negatives. I wrote another blog post about 6 reasons you should not be a firefighter. This article will point out to you that if you are not already comfortable with doing them, this can turn out to be a poor choice of a career for you.
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