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First Responder Burnout

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By its nature, the first responder workplace is unpredictable, often thankless. It can lead to poor work/life balance thorough uncontrollable events affecting schedules and families. Finally, all first responder jobs are “helping” professions, in real life and in real time. LEOs, FF, EMS, Dispatch, and EMA are not telecommuters. You cannot arrest someone by logging into a VPN, virtual water is useless for real fires, and CPR cannot be accomplished by remote control.

For a valuable overview of the different types of stress facing responders, the podcast “Stress Management for Emergency Responders: Understanding Responder Stress,” by Dr. Leslie Snider of the Antares Foundation, was broadcast in 2009. A transcript is available.

The Mayo Clinic has an excellent summary of factors contributing to burnout, the symptoms and consequences of burnout, and measures to relieve it.

From my perspective, and I am by no means an expert, burnout is exacerbated by 1) a lack of control over job duties, 2) feeling unappreciated 3) poor work/ life balance, and 4) a job in a helping profession. (Paging First Responders, please pick up the red courtesy phone, First Responders, pick up the red courtesy phone…)

Critical Incident Stress versus Burnout

Many agencies have excellent strategies in place to deal with events that would be classified as Critical Incident Stress. Debriefings by department facilitators are often held after incidents that involve injury or death of a responder, or of children, or other calls that stress a responder’s ability to function. Resources for this type of acute stress management are available from OSHA.

Burnout, however, is different from both acute daily stress and Critical Incident Stress. It is an emotional state resulting from chronic unmanaged stress, defined by Dr. Snider as “characterized by chronic emotional exhaustion, depleted energy, loss of enthusiasm and motivation to work, lowered work efficiency, a diminished sense of personal accomplishment, and pessimism and cynicism.” Managing stress on a regular basis may help prevent the buildup that leads to burnout. Both individuals and agencies can adopt strategies to help manage first responder stress.

Detecting and Preventing Burnout

Burnout is NOT an inevitable part of being a first responder, and the cumulative stress of the job affects people differently. Common stereotypes—the fresh faced rookie, the hardened Lieutenant, the sullen and unapproachable Captain—may actually reflect different personalities’ experience of burnout. Even the sense of calm and control that comes from experience could in some cases be a sign that veteran members are suffering from burnout.

Consider the following questions if you are experiencing or know someone who is experiencing the symptoms of burnout. First, when was the last time you took all of your vacation days? Many a vacation, especially for volunteers and part-time responders, is cut short or interrupted by a call, some schedule glitch, someone sick on shift, and on and on. Also, when was the last time you “planned” a week off? Often vacation days are taken hit and miss, or filled with chores to be done, such as home improvement projects. The challenge is to grab a calendar, right now, and pick a solid week that you will mark as “Vacation” in the next quarter. Put it on there; think about the activities that will be restful, fun, and restorative.

How long have you been working/assigned to your current duty location? If the effects of burnout are starting to affect your effectiveness, does your department have some program that allows responders to “swap” stations for a few weeks? Or take a position temporarily that would limit the field time for a few weeks? In the military, there is the “Hometown Recruiter” program in which military members can rotate to home station and work in their community, without using leave time. Perhaps there is a liaison position for a project that would provide tasks requiring your expertise but away from calls for a spell.

What are the hobbies and enjoyable activities you routinely enjoy to decompress and reset? The ones completely unrelated to your first responder duties? Volunteer FF Training may be fun and full of camaraderie, but what else do you do on the weekends? Make a list, and take a calendar, scheduling one day at least each month (a minimum of only 12 times a year) when you will undertake the things that you enjoy and that bring you a sense of satisfaction.

For Agencies

If you are in leadership, consider some of the same questions above from a management perspective. When WAS the last time Jones took a week off without coming in? Gee, has Harris been assigned to that sector, department, engine, for three years already? When was the last time Smith was sent to off-site training or a nearby conference? What activities do we, as an agency do FOR our responders? Wash dogs to raise money for the shelter, collect for the MDA, hold an annual awards celebration... Who is the beneficiary of the activity? The responders themselves? There must be the time and the urgency to address the stress management needs of your agency’s greatest resources.

Resources are available

For stress management strategies for first responders and agencies from Department of Health and Human Services, visit

For more resources from the Antares Foundation, visit:

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Ensure your agency has the number posted for Safe Call Now, the 24 hour line for First Responders in crisis, staffed by first responders. Follow For an article on this great resource, visit:

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