The physical and mental well-being of the firefighter is a topic that must be considered when handling all other personnel management functions. It’s long been known that firefighters bear witness to, and experience some of, the worst things humanity has to offer. These adverse experiences strain an individuals mind.
To an average person, witnessing a motor vehicle accident or a death is typically distressing, shocking, perhaps even life altering. The frequent and sometimes prolonged exposure to these critical incidents begs to question the physical and mental well-being of the firefighter.
It’s no surprise that job stressors have always been present in firefighting; but the consequences weren’t fully identified, analyzed, mitigated, or even diagnosed until recent decades.
The long and short-term psychological effects of being a firefighter are easily identifiable today. It’s not entirely possible to bear witness to disasters, mass casualty incidents, the death of children and other terrible incidents without it affecting your ability to function properly in some facet of life.
Incidents aside, there are also physical stressors that assist in compounding the psychological stressors. Lack of consistent sleep, a poor diet, family difficulties, medical issues and the like can contribute to the degradation of overall performance and add to the complexity of firefighter mental and physical stress.
The answer to this problem can be found in the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standard 1500. The establishment of the NFPA 1500 in 1987 was the first real push in creating an occupational safety and health framework for the fire service. Chapters 11 & 12 of NFPA 1500 cover firefighter well-being. NFPA 1500-Chapter 11 suggests the creation of a behavioral health program and a firefighter wellness program. Both of these programs require a task force of internal and external agencies to comply fully. Entities such as: Clinical psychological health workers, personal trainers, therapists, doctors and support groups together will offer a well-rounded support structure for a firefighting workforce.
According to NFPA 1500
“The behavioral health assistance program shall include the capability to provide assessment, basic counseling, stress crisis intervention assistance, and triage and assessment regarding, at a minimum, alcohol, and substance abuse, stress and anxiety, depression, and personal problems that adversely affect fire department work performance.” (Section 126.96.36.199)
NFPA 1500 Chapter 12 requires a firefighter wellness program that maintains medical oversight by the fire department physician. The wellness program can tie in closely with the behavioral assistance program. The lingering factors involved with firefighter behavioral and psychological health lead fire service personnel managers to pay special attention to contributing factors when deciding to provide disciplinary action and gauge the content of performance reviews.
The reason these NFPA chapters exist in 1500, in the manner they do, is because the well-being of firefighters is a clear and present problem. Firefighters are at greater risk for all forms of cancer, heart disease, cardio-vacular problems, and divorce. It’s nearly a perfect storm that’s ripe for intervention.
Take the time to evaluate your department’s Health and Wellness Program, if there isn’t one, push to create one.
Next time you mull over a decision for discipline, take into account the bigger picture. Take a 40,000 foot view looking down and see if there are any recent incidents or personal problems affecting your firefighter. If you’re a tight-nit bunch of guys then you should be able to recognize a change in behavior.
Granted some actions are inexcusable, but taking a few extra hours to identify the root cause may provide some insight which changes your path from disciplinary action to health and wellness check. Your Firefighter might thank you and you may have earned some personal respect. You want to ensure you are helping to correct the real problem and not compounding it with write-ups. Be safe, Be thoughtful, Be a Brother.
You can view the next in this series: Thoughtful Leadership – Disciplinary Action