Fire Fighting in Canada

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WellBeing: September 2014

You are exhausted. You don’t feel in sync with your body and mind. You’re eating way more than you should. Your sleep is disturbed and you get far less than you need. You are stressed. How do you change that?

August 28, 2014 
By Elias Markou

You are exhausted. You don’t feel in sync with your body and mind. You’re eating way more than you should. Your sleep is disturbed and you get far less than you need. You are stressed. How do you change that?

All of us forget how to cope, manage, and address our stress.  Stress directly affects physical health and creates unhealthy behaviours such as obesity, diabetes, injuries, cardiovascular problems and even substance abuse.

Fire fighting is synonymous with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. A 2009 joint study by the University of Ottawa and the University of Washington focused specifically on PTSD and duty-related trauma within fire services in Canada and the United States. The research showed that 17.3 per cent of the Canadian firefighters surveyed had the disorder and had experienced at least one traumatic event in the last year with known mental stressors present.

But there are also small, daily stressors in firefighters’ jobs. When these stressors accumulate over time, they can have a profoundly negative impact.

Firefighters are constantly in fight-or-flight situations. Even when firefighters head into their days off, it takes almost 48 hours to come off that fight-or-flight response. Anxiously waiting for the next emergency is considered normal duties of the job; the stress of a 30-year career in the fire service will have a significant impact on a firefighter’s overall health.

One of the best definitions of stress I have come across was in a 2012 article written by P.J. Norwood, a deputy chief training officer with the East Haven Fire Department in Connecticut, and James Rascati, a social worker with more than 35 years of experience. They cited a definition of stress and its impact on the body: “Upon immediate disruption of psychological or physical equilibrium, the body responds by stimulating the nervous, endocrine, and immune systems. The reaction of these systems causes a number of physical changes that have both short- and long-term effects on the body”. The writers also pointed out that there is no way firefighters can predict which events will affect them.

Every firefighter’s stress expresses itself differently. There are many ways that stress comes out; firefighters need to know how to carefully listen to their bodies and the presenting symptoms. Remember, symptoms are the signs of stress, not the stress itself. Some firefighters experience headaches, anxiety, digestive problems, sleep issues, depression, over-eating or even under-eating; others may feel sadness, irritability and even begin the dangerous interaction with drugs and alcohol. Many firefighters continue to treat the immediate symptoms, but never tackle the stressors.

Research has confirmed that stress is a silent killer, but there are ways to silence this killer. Here is your general plan.

Move It! Move It! Move It! Regular exercise that includes cardio and strength training is a very important part of a stress-free lifestyle. Studies show overtraining can contribute to the out-of-control cycle of stress. Give yourself two days of rest to allow for muscle repair. Occasionally include some leisure activity such as yoga, Pilates, stretching or tai chi to keep things interesting.

Did you know there are foods that help to fight stress? An anti-stress diet should consist of a wide selection of fresh fruit and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables provide the body with essential vitamins, minerals and nutrients. Vitamin C, all the B vitamins (B1, B3, B5, B6, B12), magnesium, calcium and chromium found in vitamin-rich foods should all be part of an anti-stress diet program. Choose a variety of proteins from sources such as fish, beans, legumes, and lean red meats. Ancient grains such as quinoa and millet are high in protein and fiber and should be consumed. Food is the essence of life and energy; make sure you fill your tank with optimum fuel to help you make it through your stressful day.

Sleep is very important. Good rest has a profound effect on immunity, mood, repair and recovery of the body from all stressors, not to mention that a good sleep makes almost everything go away.

Finally, acknowledge that you need help. Even a friendly chat with a colleague, a friend or a family member can go a long way. Half the battle is understanding that you are not alone.

Have you ever asked yourself, honestly, if some aspects of your firefighting career stress you out? If so, ask yourself an even more direct question, “Am I stressed out and what does my body feel like when it is stressed?” Your answers will alarm you.

Dr. Elias Markou is in private practice in Mississauga, Ont., and is the chief medical officer for the Halton Hills Fire Department. Contact him at

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