Preparing for Post-Traumatic StressMonday, 26 June 2017 00:00 Written by Super User
Guest Blog wirtten for ATS by Robert Avsec
Allow me to begin by saying that this article is not focused on treating any individual who is having negative responses to post traumatic stress (PTS), especially those who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Those folks need the treatment and guidance of mental health professionals and others far more knowledgeable on the subject.
Many people have many opinions about why fire and EMS personnel are being exposed to more on-the-job stress (career or volunteer, you’re still on the job when providing service), but there seems to be general agreement that they are. So, if we know that stress is to be expected, shouldn’t we prepare ourselves to minimize the risk?
We know the risks involved in structural firefighting and we train for them and we wear the appropriate PPE to protect ourselves from them, right? Then think of this article as a primer on what you can do to better prepare yourself for the physical and emotional risks presented by on-the-job stress.
I’m going to look at some strategies that firefighters and EMS personnel can use to develop and maintain their resilience, that is, their ability to “bounce back up” physically and emotionally when stress has “knocked them down.”
Strategy #1: Know the Enemy
In my previous posts on this blog, I’ve discussed, The Effects of Stress on Our Brain and Body, and followed that up with, An Intro to Firefighters and Their Mental Health Challenges. I believe these are two good starting points for becoming informed and educated about stress in your world, both on and off the job. Knowing and understanding how stress can affect you is as important to this discussion as is knowing and understanding the hazards of exposure to smoke or an infectious disease.
My fire service colleague, Leckey Harrison, is a retired firefighter/EMT who now operates his own business, Raise Your Resilience, LLC, in Langley, Washington. Leckey is also a PTSD sufferer/survivor. He has this to say about the “disorder” in PTSD:
“I like the word, "disorder." When stress traumatizes [an individual], that is what happens to the brain—it disorders in its functioning. It also implies that it can be re-ordered correctly, which has been my experience.” 
Learn as much as you can, and keep learning, about stress because the more you know the better you can work through that reordering process. And that’s a big part of what resilience is all about.
Strategy #2: Manage Your Family Life Stressors
Work at being a good spouse or partner
Yes, I said work. Your job likely takes you away from this key role in your life on a regular basis. Make time to communicate with that special person in your life about what you see and feel while doing your job, and that includes the good, the bad, and the ugly. We have a subconscious tendency to not share what we see and experience on the job, thinking that we’re “sparing” our loved ones from the trauma we experience. Remember the part about “…in good times and bad, in sickness and in health…”?
“Our organization has created resources specifically for marriage and family of first responders that never existed before. And brought together a community of peer support and accountability to keep our marriages strong and our firefighters focused on safely and skillfully doing what they love as a firefighter.” 
Work at being a good parent
And that means being present for things like family mealtime, school events, sporting events, and making mud pies on a rainy day. Your children are a tremendous source of positive energy—that can nourish and feed your soul and recharge your resilience—but you must be “plugged in.”
Lori’s website also contains a wealth of information and strategies on how to develop and maintain strong families as well as marriages and relationships. And it’s all very pertinent because that information and those strategies have been developed by firefighter spouses and their firefighters, for firefighter spouses and their firefighters.
Manage Your Financial Resources
In the fire service, we know the value of pre-fire planning and the positive influence it has on the outcome for emergency incidents. The same holds true for you and your family’s financial status.
Firefighters, particularly our younger members, tend to have an aura of invincibility. They also believe they will live forever. Both are fantasies .
Unfortunately, money problems have sunk many a fire service marriage or career. Don’t be one of them. You can reduce your family life stressors regarding that financial “picture” in both the short term and the long term by sitting down with a professional financial planner to help you plot a financial course for you and your family.
When I read Suze Orman’s book, The 9 Steps to Financial Freedom, many years ago it was an “eye-opening” experience that helped me understand the basics of financial planning and wealth protection. I recommend reading it—even if you’re going to meet with a financial planner—so that you understand the basics.
To protect your financial base, make sure that you’ve got the legal documents (that every firefighter should have) in place to protect your family’s assets (And you’ll be surprised when you sit down to list those assets!). Having those legal documents executed and in place will go a long way toward maintaining your piece of mind—and reducing stress for both you and your family .
Strategy #3: Manage Your Work Stressors
Know Your Job
Know what all your job responsibilities are, and then work diligently to obtain the knowledge, skills, and abilities to carry out those responsibilities every day. One of the most common responses from firefighters and EMS personnel who experience a traumatic event on the job is “I felt like I should have been able to do more.” You can help keep such thoughts “out of the equation” by knowing how to do your job inside and out.
Take personal responsibility for planning your fire service career. The daily “speed bumps” presented by the emotional stresses of the job can be more effectively negotiated when you have a plan. Planning your career path is also a good addition to providing for your family’s financial security. We all know that your career as a firefighter can end in a “New York Minute” on the next call. So, what’s in your career planning toolbox?
Manage Your Unit Responsibilities
Know and understand what your supervisor’s expectations are and how you can meet those expectations. Too many supervisors are not exactly forthcoming with this information (they expect you to read their mind) so take the initiative to have conversations with your boss and ask questions. And write down the responses you get and analyze them: How can you work to meet those expectations?
The same holds true for your fellow firefighters. You’ll only learn what your teammates expect from you by talking about it. Around the station, after calls, even during off-duty activities you engage in with them. This is another job stressor—letting down your fellow fighters in a crunch—that you want to work at taking off the table.
Manage Your Mission Responsibilities
Most fire departments these days provide a wide variety of services to their communities: fire suppression, EMS, hazardous materials emergencies, and technical rescue. And we all have our “favorite”, that aspect of the job that we really enjoy and feel proficient about. But a major potential stressor is when you find yourself, and your team, engaged in an operation that’s not one of your strengths .
Yes, this somewhat ties back to being skilled and practiced in carrying out your job responsibilities, but it goes further than that. It means that your equally skilled and practiced at working as part of a team and that only comes with practice. So, take responsibility for being a positive force within your team for getting out and drilling to perfect your team’s ability to fulfill all of its mission responsibilities.
1. Harrison, L. Personal Communication via LinkedIn. June 20, 2017.
2. 24/7 Commitment. About Us. http://247commitment.org/about-247-commitment/
3. FireRescue1. What to do before a firefighter is hurt? https://www.firerescue1.com/cod-company-officer-development/articles/153486018-What-to-do-before-a-firefighter-is-hurt/
4. FireRescue1. 4 strategies to reduce firefighter stress. https://www.firerescue1.com/cod-company-officer-development/articles/63685018-4-strategies-to-reduce-firefighter-stress/
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Battalion Chief Robert Avsec (Ret.) served with the Chesterfield (Va.) Fire & EMS Department for 26 years. He was an active instructor for fire, EMS, and hazardous materials courses at the local, state, and federal levels, which included more than 10 years with the National Fire Academy. Chief Avsec earned his bachelor of science degree from the University of Cincinnati and his master of science degree in executive fire service leadership from Grand Canyon University. He is a 2001 graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program. Since his retirement in 2007, he has continued to be a life-long learner working in both the private and public sectors to further develop his "management sciences mechanic" credentials. He makes his home near Charleston, W.Va.