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How firefighters stay productive and cope with stress

by Mark Miller 5 min read

How firefighters cope with stress

Photo by Matt Chesin on Unsplash

Firefighters keep busy, even in small towns. The work of cooking their meals, maintaining and cleaning the fire station, equipment, and trucks is never-ending. And if it's a big town, there are emergency calls every day, sometimes all day.

The stress of always being on call for structure fires, medical emergencies, hazardous materials spills, and technical rescues is high.

And then consider the danger and excitement of the calls firefighters make, and the stress can really go through the roof.

Imagine being asleep one minute and then being roused to respond to a call where people are trapped inside a burning building.

What firefighters do when not on calls

The site FireFighterNow.com has an article that states [1]:

Fighting fires may be the literal job description, and most important role of a firefighter, but there is so much more that goes on behind the scenes at the station. Don’t believe what you may read about personnel just lounging around waiting for a call. Firefighters are actually very busy with many important duties.

 If you were to ask most people what does a firefighter do all day, they would probably say that they spend all day out on their trucks fighting fires. That said, firefighters do more than just respond to fires.

So, what does a firefighter do all day?

  • Equipment Checks
  • Gear Inspections
  • Vehicle Maintenance
  • Continuing Education (Con-Ed)
  • Physical Training & Drills
  • Station Maintenance
  • Writing Reports
  • Run Reviews
  • Relax & Eat
  • Public Safety Education
  • School Talks
  • Station Tours

It sure does sound like a busy day.

At night, the firefighters in Virginia Beach go to bed around 10 p.m. but must be ready to jump up and go out on calls all night long. Their shift is from 8 a.m. to 8 a.m., and the regular crew members work 56 hours per week. Master firefighters (or above) may work 40-hour work weeks.

Other cities have similar arrangements.

A day in the life of Madison, Wisconsin, firefighter Brandon Jones

Coping with 24-hour shifts

FireRescue1.com has an article by a San Francisco rescue captain on coping with 24-hour shifts that says [2]:

While hearing you now only work nine days a month may sound very exciting, each of those nine days encompasses the entire day, from 8 a.m. one day, to 8 a.m. the next day. Morning, day, night, afternoon, breakfast, lunch and dinner.

... When you do arrive home in the morning the kids will already be off at school and all of yesterday‘s problems are waiting for your attention. That 24-hour shift will end up costing you closer to 30 hours once you finally get up to speed back home.

The benefits of the schedule will balance out the negatives in the long run, but being away for so long at a time will take its toll early on. If you have little ones at home they‘ll need an explanation as to where you were and why you have to go there. Late night phone calls from home about bumps in the night and unfinished chores or errands that you need to run in the morning may have you wondering why you chose this career.

It's hard to tell a person on a 24-hour shift, during which they may be awake the entire 24 hours, how to cope with stress and sleeplessness. Being a firefighter has been considered one of the most stressful jobs.


Another Firehouse.com article says [3]:

Unfortunately, there is not a big red side-effect label on stress, so when firefighters feel common signs of stress, such as anxiousness, irritability, nervousness or even experience memory and concentration impairments, stress may not seem like the obvious culprit.

And as noted, chronic stress can lead to mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety. Not only does stress impact mental health with mood changes, but it can have lasting effects on the brain. Chronic stress that is not properly managed releases cortisol, which can alter the brain’s structure and cause damage over a long period ...

How to deal with the stress of firefighting

Firehouse gives some tips on how to deal with stress:

  • Get healthy amounts of sleep when you are not working. It may not be possible to sleep well at the firehouse. But when you are home, use these sleep tips [4] that caffeinated Viter Energy Mints wrote about in a previous article [5].
  • Get enough to drink so you are not dehydrated, and eat a good, nutritious diet of lean meats, vegetables, fruits, nuts, etc. Firefighters need to be strong and healthy physically. The physical health will contribute to better mental health.
  • Avoid things that trigger your stress response where possible. Find coping mechanisms. Healthline.com gives 17 ways to cope with stress in less than 30 minutes [6].
  • Many fire stations have exercise equipment on site, and physical training is part of a firefighter's daily routine. But get exercise when you are not on duty, too, so you stay in shape and can handle your tough job.
  • Breathing exercises [7], yoga [8], or meditation [9] can all help people cope in difficult life situations. They can help you unwind, calm your heart, and restore the body.
  • Firehouse says humor helps: "Laughing has shown to have numerous benefits including stress release. Laughing can physically and mentally change the way your body reacts to stress including boosting your immune system, stimulating organs, reducing tension and improving overall mood."
  • When you're away from work, do things you enjoy doing, whether with family and friends or alone. Take up a hobby or study something you've always wanted to learn about.

The rewards of being a firefighter

FIreRescue1 concludes its article by saying:

Then one night you‘ll get awoken from a deep sleep by bright lights and a loud tone. Half awake, you‘ll shuffle to the engine and don your gear while the siren does its best to wake you.

While pulling on your gloves you‘ll notice your hands are still asleep and a sudden yawn will be interrupted by a bright orange glow. Stepping off the engine, with your 35-pound airpack half on, you‘ll have less than 60 seconds before the company officer orders you to search a house for its sleeping occupants.

All the lost sleep will be worth it.

Mints with caffeine and B vitamins

Caffeine in the right amounts and at the right time can help get you through the day.

Of course, you might not want to fill up on coffee and lattes and other caffeinated liquids, especially if you will be out on calls. But you still may want that caffeine.

Try Viter Energy Mints with both caffeine and B vitamins. The tasty mints perk you up and freshen your breath.

Each has 40 mg of caffeine in a sugar-free mint, equal to about one-quarter of a mug of coffee. You can take one mint per half-hour or hour to get a steady stream of caffeine into your bloodstream, or four in quick succession to equal about one mug of java.


[1] https://firefighternow.com/12-things-firefighters-do-every-day-when-not-fighting-fires/

[2] https://www.firerescue1.com/fire-careers/articles/coping-with-those-24-hour-fire-service-shifts-LMYu4A0EfOKXnTAC/

[3] https://www.firehouse.com/safety-health/article/12152154/health-wellness-how-firefighters-can-manage-stress

[4] http://worldsleepday.org/10-commandments-of-sleep-hygiene-for-adults

[5] https://www.goviter.com/blogs/viter-energy-blog/sleeping-longer-can-make-you-feel-more-tired

[6] https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/stress-coping-eliminate

[7] https://www.webmd.com/balance/stress-management/stress-relief-breathing-techniques

[8] https://www.nytimes.com/guides/well/beginner-yoga

[9] https://www.mindful.org/how-to-meditate/

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