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Editor's note: This is Part 3 of a four-part blog series on first responder mental health from Rob Martin. Read Part 1 here.

Feb. 23, 2015, Kitchener, Ont. – I don’t want to sound presumptuous, but everyone in emergency services likely knows someone who is burned out or “crusty”. These people stand out because they carry a negative cloud with them everywhere they go, on and off the job. Thankfully, it’s a minority of people who carry this cloud, but, like an infection, it takes an alert immune system to ward off the impact of negativity. It takes awareness, patience and understanding to help people climb out of their funk. Often though, the rest of the shift or crew working that day can overcome one person’s negative vibe, so we routinely ignore and dismiss them without a lot of thought. But perhaps we shouldn’t!

So, if these people represent the minority, who makes up the majority? Are we a group of upbeat, positive people, all joyous and full of bliss? Right – I didn’t think so either. Obviously we have ups and downs too, but where do we fall on the happiness spectrum?

Observations such as these started about 10 years into my career as a firefighter, and I slowly began questioning myself about the affects my career choice had on my mental wellbeing. We’ve all heard the “this job will change you” speech, but how many of us truly reflect on what that change entails? How many of us would allow the change if we knew we had a choice?

Since my initial aha moment, I have always stepped back from my situations and experiences and acted as a witness to my feelings. I first observe my decisions, then question my choices, and then redirect myself as required. On emergency scenes during which seconds count our training guides us; we may even operate on autopilot. Our departments may conduct post-incident debriefs to review and possibly redirect our actions if necessary. One of the many lessons that has come forward from emergency management experts is this: calm is contagious. Certainly calm is evident on scene and provides first responders with a solid foundation to serve the public well. But calm can sometimes be confused with lack of emotion or feeling. Take a moment and check in with yourself. Have you let calm turn into numb?

Numb: deprived of feeling or responsiveness.

Sadly, numb is where you might find the majority of first responders hanging out. Don’t think so? Neither did I. I just figured as I aged I was becoming less enthused about the things that formerly made me laugh and feel less upset about burdens or hardships. In a way I was right, but it wasn’t age; it has much more to do with my experience on the job. I was becoming desensitized to what the average person considers traumatic. I realized this numbness is a slippery slope.

For a moment, think of our feelings and emotions on a scale from one to 10, where 10 is the positive and one is the negative. All of us would prefer to hang out on the higher end – right? But when we respond to emergencies and attempt to mitigate tragedies and losses, it is impossible to remain at the upper end of the scale. As humans – compassionate ones at that – we can’t help but feel saddened or upset possibly even angry about the tragedies we witness. Over time we learn to build walls, develop a thick skin, and slowly turn to other possibly more damaging methods to create numbness. To put a bit of perspective on this, imagine gently touching the skin of a loved one with your hands. The connection between your skin and theirs, the energy transfer, is undeniable; it can even be described as electric. Now go put on some oven mitts and repeat; not quite the same, is it? Many first responders are walking around with oven mitts on their hearts. It serves the purpose of protecting them from harm, but it also prevents them from fully experiencing the true joys in life.

So how do we choose not to let our job change us?

How do we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and still protect, respond and perform under the extreme circumstances of emergency response? It comes down to knowing when to wear oven mitts and when it’s OK to take them off. Think of it as PPE for your heart and soul! Like all PPE, it must be properly selected, personalized and worn every time for it to work.

Luckily, the first step is easy and it begins just like every life – with your breath.

Continue reading this series with Part 4

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, find him on Facebook – Rob Martin yoga – and follow him on Twitter @fit4duty101

February 23, 2015 
By Rob Martin

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