Emotions & The Fire Service

Emotions & The Fire Service

In a typical day at the fire station emotions are evoked from a myriad of events. We may have to perform an unexpected task that evokes the emotion of disgust because of this interrupts the plans that the company had for that day. We may be discussing the economy and it may evoke feelings of insecurity and tension. We may be performing in-service training, pre-planning structures, doing normal station duties, running calls, and administrative work. These are but a few examples of what a Firefighter’s daily routine is like.

Emotions in the workplace play a direct role in employee performance, career length, and overall business effectiveness. In the fire service with a four-man crew managed and led by a Captain there are a variety of emotions that affect our daily routines. Emotional stress from home can negatively impact the performance of a firefighter and reduce the ability of the crew to function successfully. A firefighter that is experiencing difficulties at home (without any support or counseling) will not have his or her mind on the task at hand (which could lead to an OJI or worse). Our home families are our first priority and our fire department family is our second priority. Anyone under a significant amount of home related stress is going to have their focus elsewhere. This could be a safety issue. Departmental resources should be made available to those in need without discrimination and certain employees should be mandatory referred to those services in order to prevent harm.

Career length is an issue I believe is often under estimated. Employees who leave corporations and large businesses are seldom missed or looked into. I worked as a sales person for Sears back in the early nineties (working my way through college) and a gentleman I worked with didn’t show up for work one day. He was an elderly man and had worked for Sears for 20 years rarely missing a day of work. Two weeks went by before anyone noticed he wasn’t there. The manager at the time called to check in on him only to find out he had passed away two weeks prior. In the past, individuals worked for a company as a lifelong career. A positive caring environment where people looked after each other was not uncommon.

In today’s world employees hop from job to job, rolling 401k’s over constantly, pensions are unheard of, and someone working 30 years in one place is viewed as unique. The fire service is slowly becoming affected by this trend. Individuals are realizing that the fire service is a very secure job (for the moment ). Employees with higher education than the job requires are becoming firefighters. Then in 3-5 years the employees who don’t work their way up the career ladder of the fire service are leaving. Quitting the fire service before your tenure was up used to be unheard of but now is becoming more common.

The role that emotions are playing in career length in this scenario is twofold. The first example is of individual simply becoming a firefighter for job security purposes (good schedule, benefits, retirement, etc.). This individual typically doesn’t last more than five years. They are over-qualified and soon find out the amount of stress, actual work, and minimal pay are not what they had envisioned.
The second example of how emotions are affecting career length in the fire service is one that isn’t often talked about. Heart attacks, higher incidence of cancer, higher divorce rate (84%), anxiety, shortened life span, and working two-three jobs to feed their families. These are examples of the effects of non-counseled, non-treated and silent subjects in the fire service. Why is this? We work a long shift, can be awakened from a deep sleep to perform physically demanding work, and see the most unimaginably horrible things that happen to men, women, and children. These incidents lead to anxiety, stress, anger, depression, high blood pressure, and other health issues. At this point, you might be saying well why would anyone want to be a firefighter? I truly believe it is a calling, something that you feel in your heart, and you know this is your path. The issue is not the job but how the job affects us. We perform physically demanding tasks yet we have sub standard physical requirements. We witness tragic events but are not required to be counseled or debriefed. We experience health issues but the majority of the departments do not mandate an in-depth annual physical (Wellness Fitness Initiative). If you are given the tools, training, and resources to do a job doesn’t it make sense to perform preventative maintenance to help ensure a positive and productive employee?

Overall business effectiveness can be negatively impacted by underestimating the role of emotions in the workplace. Poor morale is one example of how emotions can affect business effectiveness. Fisher’s Job Emotion Scale (JES) lists 16 emotions that can used to survey employees. As an employer you may choose which emotions to list in your survey especially if those in this field are more prone to a specific type of emotion. Employees can be surveyed by having them describe an event or situation that caused them to feel one of the selected emotions (Ashkanasy, p 38). These results can be grouped into two categories: positive & negative emotions. Then these categories can be listed under headings specific to the cause such as: Acts of management, Acts of employees, Acts of customers. This study was used to analyze and create a model for organizational justice. Organizational justice breaks theories into a two stage model of events: the outcomes that one receives and the processes by which these outcomes are assigned (Greenburg, 1990). The goal with a study such as this is not to eliminate negative emotions (which are impossible); it is identify them quickly and deal with them.

In conclusion, emotion’s root word is emote which implies energy is moving out. Emotions are attempted to express outwardly, or to express what we believe (Pennington, Haslam). An employer who understands the importance that emotions play in affecting the workplace environment will be better equipped at managing and preventing workplace incidents due to emotional influences. Pennington & Haslam’s model is a very simple explanation of the role emotions play in our life: thoughts + emotions+ behaviors= results. As a firefighter, understanding that your emotions need to be expressed, dealt with in a positive manner, and not suppressed. One who suppresses his/her emotions will ultimately suffer the consequences of this. As it has been said “Bitterness is like me drinking poison and hoping someone else dies”. Our logic is flawed. Our calling is to serve & sacrifice for our fellow man so how much more should we be taking care of our own.

Stay safe & take care of each other.

Andy J. Starnes


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