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What do you do to “unwind”?

by Robert Avsec
EMA Emergency Management, EMS Emergency Medical Services, FD Fire Departments, Law Enforcement, badges article logo label

If you’re in any of the public safety fields, that is, law enforcement, fire, EMS, 911 Dispatching, etc., I’m not telling you anything new when I say that these jobs are stressful. Whether you’re a paid employee or volunteer your time to your community it’s “more than just a job.”

See Related: Public Safety Workers and Stress: Training is Part of the Solution

“Day after day our nation’s public safety workers put their lives on the line to keep its citizens safe—but at what cost? Law enforcement officers, firefighters and emergency medical technicians have some of the most physically and psychologically stressful jobs in America (consistently ranking on’s annual Top 10 Most Stressful Jobs list), and over time that stress can have a serious impact on their overall well-being.”—Lt. Traycee B., posted on United States First Reponders Association,

Fortunately, the issues associated with stress for public safety workers are beginning to draw the attention of both management and labor. Progressive public safety organizations are realizing that the behavioral health of their personnel is every bit as important as their physical health.

Little attention has been paid to the behavioral health of fire service members until recently with the advent of Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) and Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM). Having first responders who are mentally and emotionally fit is an essential building block for any public safety organization.

   Stress is recognized as one of the most serious occupational hazards affecting a firefighter’s health, well-being and career. On the other hand, we know that stress is not something to be avoided absolutely, as it is essential for vitality and optimal functioning.

In this program, participants will learn about fire service stress and how to apply sound stress managing principles for the purpose of minimizing the health-ravaging and costly consequences of excessive stress. Participants will learn how to become active, competent architects of career and life.Abstract, Stress Management Model Program for Firefighter Well-Being, United States Fire Administration.

See Related: Stress Management Model Program for Firefighter Well-Being (PDF file format)

As we can see, the topic of stress in the emergency services environment is a multi-faceted problem and one that has many potential solutions or coping mechanisms. So for simplicity’s sake, let’s return to the premise of this particular article: What do you do to “unwind”?

I posted the following on my Facebook Page as well as on several other Facebook Pages and Groups that that I follow including Friends of Female FF's :NJFC's. These are some of the responses that I received:

Lori K.   -   I know this will sound silly, but I quilt and knit blankets.

Irene S.F.   -   Attending ice hockey games when I can. Unfortunately that is only winter.

Jason E.   -   Preaching and praising God.

Dwayne J.   -   Watching college football. Certainly doesn't help lower stress, but it does refocus it!

Michelle Y.   -   [Playing] board games with my kids!

Brandy R.V.   -   Remodel/landscape projects, Jeeping with my dog and husband, and Pipe and Drum practice.

Karen B.   -   I just started doing Reiki and have been meditating for a while. I feel recharged, calm and I have more energy to put into my daily activities than I did before starting. I also began doing some easy hikes in the State forest near my house. My big goal now is to really get into weight training. I have been playing around with it for a long time so now I'm getting more serious about it. Also journaling and reading are two things I do to refocus my thoughts.

Some pretty interesting and different activities, no? For me, downhill skiing and golf have always provided welcome relief from the stresses associated with being an emergency responder. I’ve always found that the focus one needs to successfully hit golf shots, or keep from killing themselves while zipping down a snow-covered mountain slope, seems to push stress right out of the picture. Those activities were also instrumental in helping to manage the day-to-day stresses of being a manager in a Fire and EMS Department as well. (And we all know that’s some of the biggest on-the-job stress, right?)

One of the key elements that I found common in developing background information for this piece was that of finding an outlet for stress. Something that you enjoy doing so much, that when you’re doing it, you’re totally “immersed” in it. Depending upon your personality, that may be:
   •   A physical activity, such as, participating in an individual or team sport, or riding your bike, or hitting the gym to “throw around some iron;”
   •   Being outside and enjoying the “great outdoors” riding your motorcycle, camping, or hiking;
   •   Reading books—good and bad!—working puzzles, learning a new language, or engaging friends, old and new, via the Internet and social media; or
   •   Volunteering your time in your community to help other non-profit organizations, e.g., a local food bank, Meals-on-Wheels, tutoring elementary school students, etc.

Road to Mental Readiness (R2MR)

While I was doing my research for this article, a Canadian friend and colleague of mine, Robin Bender, shared this webpage with me: Road to Mental Readiness (R2MR). The page is part of the National Defence (sic) and Canadian Armed Forces website. In reviewing its contents, I found many parallels between the stresses associated with military service and public safety.

R2MR has a solid foundation in the concept of resilience. Resilience is the capacity of a soldier [read: first-responder] to recover quickly, resist, and possibly even thrive in the face of direct/indirect traumatic events and adverse situations in garrison [read: in the station], training and operational environments. Recovery from the greatest physical and mental hardships of the military [read: public safety] environment is geared in the near term to the soldier’s [read: first-responder’s] current mission, but also is required in the long term throughout one’s career.
         - From Road to Mental Readiness

I was particularly drawn to the three section headings of R2MR:
   •   Career Cycle. Building mental resilience is similar to building one’s own physical fitness. Building mental resilience is not so much a goal as it is an ever-evolving process, a process that will be different for each person at different stages of their career.
   •   Deployment Cycle. Though we in public safety do not typically deploy for months at a time, as do soldiers and other military personnel, we do have extended tours of duty, e.g., the 24-hour (or in some cases even longer) shift. Many public safety personnel are also members of specialty teams, e.g., Urban Search and Rescue Teams, that may be called upon to deploy for extended periods of time to assist other localities in recovering from natural disasters such as tornadoes, hurricanes, or floods.
   •   Family Cycle. “Deployment is a fact of military life. For most CAF personnel the opportunity to deploy around the world, making a difference in lives of others, is what prompted their desire to join the military in the first place. However, for many families, managing deployments can be particularly challenging - extended separations, increased workloads, and anxiety over the safety of their loved one, and managing transition and reintegration issues upon completion of the tour - all amount to increased stress.” (Road to Mental Readiness, Family Cycle)

Sound familiar? All you have to do is substitute a few key words, e.g., “firefighter” for “CAF personnel”, and you’re talking about the public safety family, no?

So what do you do to “unwind”?

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