When contemplating the roles and duties of the fire service field, we immediately envision firefighters in their gear, thick black smoke billowing out of burning buildings, and hoses pointedly directed at the red-hot flame. In actuality, this is representative of only a small portion of a firefighter’s overall job responsibility, as firefighters are intricately involved in disaster and emergency response. In addition to extinguishing flames and safeguarding human life and property, firefighters are expected to respond to vehicle extrication, acts of terror, and to the aftermath of Mother Nature’s infliction’s.
Hurricanes are a remarkable phenomenon, precipitating both awe and terror simultaneously. The intensity and relentless ferocity of a hurricane cause mass destruction, including damage to property and infrastructure, a threat to human life, and widespread regional devastation. First responders lead rescue efforts to bring others to safety, running directly into the storm, while everyone runs away.
This type of work is noble and rewarding, but extremely difficult and taxing at the same time. There is a significant amount of stress that first responders endure while bringing others to safety. Firefighters run the risk of burnout, or feelings of great emotional exhaustion, or secondary traumatic stress, or stress reactions arising from exposure to other’s trauma experience. Depression, frustration, irritability, fatigue, and low self-worth are signs of burnout, while extreme anxiety, physical symptoms of stress, and nightmares are representative of secondary traumatic stress.
Hurricane Michael recently struck the Florida Panhandle, and first responders were ironically dispatched to the Sunshine State. These individuals packed their bags, left their families, and headed straight for the unknown, with no definitive knowledge of the type of danger or human suffering that they might endure. However, these people were privy to the fact that they would be working long hours, have heavy workloads, and be confronted with life and death decisions during their time in the Sunshine State. This pressure and strain were compounded by the absence of familiar home environments and social support systems.
There are several strategies to assist first responders in mitigating stress. Firefighters should attempt to educate themselves beforehand to learn what their role in response efforts might be. First responders should be adequately trained in hurricane response and equipment. Individuals need to be prepared for issues and hazards that can arise from hurricanes, including oil and chemical spills, general wreckage, and electrical lines.
First responders should employ healthy coping mechanisms and self-care techniques, including exercise, eating well, and socialization to reduce burnout. Firefighters should avoid working more than twelve hours in a row and attempt to work amongst others to prevent isolation. Journals, mindfulness, deep breathing, and relaxation techniques can all be helpful tools in self-care efforts. It is essential that first responders understand that breaks are critical and self-care is vital in taking care of others. It is also imperative that first responders recognize that disaster response is always a team effort.
First responders can also consider and utilize a buddy system, which is where two people work together to support each other. Buddies can be vigilant of each other’s safety, emotional well being, work volume, and levels of stress. Also, buddies can encourage to take breaks and to engage in stress relief efforts when needed, such as sleeping, meditation, or relaxation.
Despite careful preparation and the best of intentions, sometimes the strain of rescue efforts becomes too overwhelming and professional intervention is needed. Deer Hollow Recovery and Wellness Center is a specialized client-centered trauma program designed specifically for Traumas experinced as a responder. The program offers dual diagnosis treatment, targeting mental health and substance abuse issues concurrently. Clinical treatment seeks to assist first responders in identifying, understanding, and processing trauma. Treatment plans focus on working through an injury, reducing negative symptoms and problematic behaviors, and promoting emotional, mental, and physical health. In this unique program, first responders receive over thirty-five hours of trauma-focused psycho-education and the opportunity to process their experiences in the group modality. The groups are evidence-based and utilize skills and principles from Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) and Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT). In addition, individual and family sessions are conducted on a weekly basis as needed.
Despite common stereotypes and perception, firefighters are multifaceted and versatile, often rescuing and protecting individuals in situations that have nothing to do with fire. Instead of envisioning firefighters climbing a ladder to the second floor of a burning building, one can visualize a firefighter traipsing through several feet of water, dodging debris, and searching for survivors after seventy-five-mile gusts of winds blew their lives to pieces. Although heroism, deep satisfaction, and great personal reward arise from these rescue efforts, they are also laden with stress, burnout, and trauma. Thankfully, first responders can alleviate emotional distress and mental disturbance via self-care strategies and coping mechanisms. Furthermore, if symptoms become too overwhelming and problematic, professional assistance is always available, especially at Deer Hollow Recovery and Wellness Center.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Lamplugh is a fourth-generation firefighter and former captain with the Lower Chichester (PA) Fire Company. He was the Chief Marketing Officer of 360 Wellness Inc and currently is Director of Media & Communications with Institute for Responder Wellness and Deer Hollow Recovery. Lamplugh is also nationally recognized in Crisis Stress Intervention through the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress. Lamplugh hosts his own talk show called “Firefighter Wellness Radio” with Fire Engineering. Mark also published his first book “Marketing Playbook for Social Media” to basically help companies and non-profits learn how to spread their message on social media. He has helped thousands of firefighters, police officers, veterans, EMS personnel, and civilians nationwide find help for addiction, alcoholism, PTSD, and mental health support. Mark has been chosen as one of the Board of Directors at One World For Life (To head up Communication and the Health & Safety section). He can be reached for comment firstname.lastname@example.org