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Fit for Duty

Editor's note: This is part 1 of a four-part blog series on first responder mental health from Rob Martin.


Jan. 28, 2015, Kitchener, Ont. - As a firefighter, I am called to the worst moments in people’s lives. From fires and car accidents to drug overdoses and suicides, it’s my job to mitigate the damage, reduce the losses and save lives. If you’re a first responder of any kind your job description isn’t much different and neither are the stresses that come from these demands. The physical stresses are obvious – run, lift, carry, stairclimb, etc. – but what about the other sources of stress? Are they as obvious? Are you even aware that you’re absorbing stress in other ways?

I’m going to assume (I know it’s a risk, but it’s what we do) that if you’re reading this, it’s because you are aware or want more awareness about your health. So let’s look at stress for a moment. Stress itself isn’t a terrible thing. In fact, every time we lift weights we stress the muscles and if we’re properly nourished, they respond by rebuilding and becoming stronger. The concept of vaccines is similar. A controlled dose of stress allows our bodies to adapt and overcome. So what happens when we experience mental or emotional stress? Is it possible to become stronger in the same way? Ask yourself “Is it a controlled dose?” Clearly control and emergency scenes are at opposite ends of the spectrum so it becomes a matter of perspective and perception.

How we perceive our roles and, more importantly, our effectiveness in our roles directly affects the dose of stress. If we view our involvement as having had a positive impact, then the experience will be stored in our mental hard drives and fit neatly away for recall if needed at another scene (a small, controllable dose that makes us stronger). If, however, we feel the outcome of the incident was not impacted by our actions in a way we expected or wanted, the dose of stress can crush us. So how do we prevent that from happening? Awareness.

Awareness of what our operational limits are: of course we need to be good at what we do but we also need to understand that even when we do everything right, the outcome is sometimes decided before our arrival. It sounds simple (and it is), but give it some thought the next time a call stays with you.

Awareness of your sympathetic response: learn to recover from fight or flight. Quick decisions are required to mitigate emergencies. We make better decisions when not in fight-or-flight mode. More on that in another blog.

Awareness of your value: just by being at the scene you are providing the patients with a feeling that someone cares. Don’t underestimate your impact.

Awareness of the big picture: constantly adapt your perspective gathering in the larger picture and understanding as much of the puzzle as possible. If your mind is searching for answers it’s impossible to control the dose through perspective.

Awareness that you took the job to help people and that means you care! Don’t ever be sorry for caring. Don’t ever feel ashamed for caring. Sometimes you will need help to cope with the levels of stress. Ask for it, because you are surrounded by people just like you – people who CARE!


Continue reading this series with Part 2.


Rob Martin is a captain with the Kitchener Fire Department in Ontario. He is a passionate advocate for healthy living and encourages a balanced approach where functional movement, nutrition, quiet time and fun are the fundamental building blocks for staying fit for duty. Rob is a master trainer with the Ontario Fire College, training firefighters in fire-ground survival techniques, and has attained the disaster canine search team qualification through FEMA. Rob has been trained in critical-incident stress debriefings, defusings and peer-to-peer support, and has served for more than a decade on a critical-incident stress-management team. Following the research chain for mental health led Rob to yoga, where the benefits were immediately obvious. After a couple of years of a personal practice, Rob studied to become a registered yoga teacher. Contact Rob at  kpffa_457@yahoo.ca and follow him on Twitter @fit4duty101  

January 27, 2015
By Rob Martin

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