Operational Stress is described as a range of negative health effects caused by different aspects of being a first responder. These aspects are not limited but include working under extreme pressure, life and death decisions and trauma.

Causes and Risk Factors

Being a first responder (Firefighter, Paramedic, Police and Military) puts you at a higher risk just with the type of work we do.  Dealing with people in their worst moment is what first responders do, but it takes a toll on our mental and physical stress.

Working under pressure A physiological response is triggered every time we are called to out to an emergency. There are physical and mental processes our bodies go through while we are dealing with a situation. Something that may seem simple becomes more difficult under these circumstances. Now, when you are tasked with a more complex objective, our bodies will be stressed that much more. Call after call, year after year, the accumulation of this stress can take a toll on First Responders.
Life and Death Decisions More of an officer or Sr member responsibility is to make bigger decisions. Should we go into a fire? Is it too hot? Is there a possibility of a victim that is still alive? How much of a risk am i going to take on my crew? These are only a fraction of decisions that are being made everyday on the fire ground. After a decision is made, there are other questions. Did i make the right call? What could i have done better? These are all questions a Sr member will go through in their head at one point or another. And with these questions, it will make you a better firefighter, but at the same time it will put that operational stress of making life and death decisions.
Trauma Every first responder will see trauma at some point in their careers. Whether it is a burn victim, a mvc, suicide etc., dealing with trauma is part of the job. Attending so many traumatic calls, run after run, year after year, will take a toll on our stress, if not dealt with properly. Seeing and dealing with people at their worst, will increase the operational stress over time.

Signs and Symptoms

Operational Stress, if not taken care of properly, could turn into an Operational Stress Injury (OSI). Signs and symptoms to be aware of include:

  • fatigue/sleep disturbances (trouble falling asleep, nightmares, restlessness, excessive sweating)
  • mood changes, irritability and a growing inflexible attitude
  • frustration with failure and incompetence of others
  • difficulty in managing stress
  • difficult to concentrate or experiencing memory loss
  • difficulty in communicating, withdrawn, speaks in the form of orders, finds it hard to be told to do something
  • difficulty with emotional connections and fluctuating emotions which can affect intimacy
  • experiencing difficulty having loving feelings, difficulty hugging your children
  • feeling insufficient to the task or guilt regarding work or family relations
  • change in core beliefs
  • believing the world is unsafe
  • feelings of vulnerability leading to increased threat sensitivity
  • putting safety plans in place
  • flashbacks, repetitive memories triggered by images, sounds or smells
  • being jumpy and hyper vigilant
  • participating in high adrenaline activities, thrill seeking
  • participating in risky behaviours such as reckless driving or road rage
  • hyperactivity to the point of exhaustion
  • avoiding activities and conversations associated with memories
  • avoiding crowds
  • loss of interest in activities, adopting an "I don't care" attitude
  • sense of hopelessness and shame
  • excessive drinking, substance abuse or gambling
  • increased anxiety and depression/dark thoughts

As first responders, we are always being called to help those in need. We are generally, more then willing to help on and off the job. By having that mind set all the time, sometimes we, are the ones in need.

When to seek Help

As first responders, we are always being called to help those in need. We are generally, more then willing to help on and off the job. By having that mind set all the time, sometimes we, are the ones in need. Our self help button may be clouded, or we may not think we need help. But if we start noticing or close family and friends start noticing these changes in our normal behaviour, it may be time to reevaulate. Where to start? Who to talk to? You may feel comfortable talking to a coworker that has experience with it, or a cooworker you trust. You can also talk to a family member or close friend. Someone you feel comfortable and confide in. You can also reach out to a peer support team member. They can listen to you and also put you in touch with professional resources if needed.