How Can First Responders Manage Their Mental Health During Fire Season?

Published on September 10, 2020 by First Responder Wellness

With dry conditions, temperatures over 90ºF, and erratic winds, fire season is in full swing through the American Southwest. As the scale of late summer firestorms has grown larger in recent years, so has the responsibility of firefighters and emergency service workers. As a community, every resident of high-risk wildfire regions can contribute to either increasing or minimizing this risk.

The longer a fire rages on, the more exhausted resources become. Even with significant advancements in firefighting technology, the top resource remains the same — manpower. Once a department runs out of viable firefighters, the high-powered fire hoses, fire engines, and aerial fire disbursement vehicles are rendered inoperable. The battle to extinguish wildfires is a war of attrition.

Given a first responder’s extreme exposure to physical and mental fatigue during the fire season, the intense heat, smoke, and lack of sleep for prolonged periods of time subjects most firefighters to trauma. Trauma may not register as highly noticeable symptoms early on.

Yet as traumatic memories are sifted into the subconscious, these experiences can pop up unexpectedly. Without the ability to move on from these memories, the risk of reliving a traumatic event is ever-present. Unless one pursues mental health counseling, trauma can linger after any prolonged battle to put out a large-scale fire.

The Body’s Reaction to Fighting Wildfires

The on-call nature of first response work establishes alternating periods of rest and hyperactivity. Switching between the two at a moment’s notice kicks the body’s “fight, flight, or freeze” response into overdrive. A surge in adrenaline may help first responders save lives, but the rush can be accompanied by unhealthy side effects.

Relying on adrenaline has allowed humans to exert incredible amounts of energy in panic situations. However, relying on adrenaline for every shift of work can lead to an imbalance in the brain’s biochemistry. The surge in energy that results from adrenaline is similar to that of a drug-induced high. Following the depletion of epinephrine — another name for the human body’s adrenaline — most will experience an energy crash.

While not immediately dangerous, consistent reliance upon the adrenal gland has long-term effects, particularly for first responders who have significant exposure to trauma. Hyperarousal — the jittery, out-of-control feeling that often results from adrenaline — can trigger the recollection of past traumas, which may produce additional hyperarousal of the senses. This metabolic imbalance can lead to weight fluctuations, erratic blood pressure, and/or heart disease.

Strategies to Help First Responders Cope With Trauma

First and foremost, anyone experiencing frequent adrenaline rushes throughout the day should consult a medical professional, as there may be underlying issues. If unexpected adrenaline rushes are occurring with sporadic frequency, breathing exercises can reduce one’s heart rate. Staying mindful in the face of hyperactivity can mitigate feelings of panic, while preventing the onset of anxieties from overwhelming the mind and body.

Staying locked in one physical location can cause adrenaline rushes to spiral into anxiety or panic attacks. As the mind begins racing, people tend to feel trapped. Taking that anxious energy and putting it into something physical, such as a workout or gardening, can help funnel this hyperactivity and assist with stress management.

Some also rely upon mantras for soothing the nerves that result from adrenaline rushes. First responders in recovery from alcohol and/or substance use disorders may benefit the most from developing coping strategies. With a plan in place, the urge to relapse can be managed with contingency plans. Having a positive, mindful mantra as an ace up the sleeve might seem ineffectual, but the familiarity of a guiding axiom can hold significant sway over the mental state of someone in crisis.

How Others Can Help During Fire Season

Fire season marks a stressful time for communities at large, not just those who have signed up for fighting fires and saving lives. There is a perception in Western society that first responders occupy heroic status, yet everyone has the opportunity to save lives by taking proper precautions. Staying informed about fire restrictions can limit the likelihood of unintentionally sparking a fire.

Additionally, preparing a fire emergency “go-pack” can save first responders time and energy when a neighborhood receives evacuation notices. Should the embers of a wildfire make their way into your community, the risk of spreading a fire will be much lower if residents properly remove any flammable or hazardous materials. Sadly, the possibility of wildfires impacting any community increases with each passing year.

While it is impossible to control the likelihood of wildfires forcing evacuations and destroying property, it is very possible to prepare for the risk and reaction to such an outcome. First responders have resources to manage their mental health and recovery, and communities have the ability to strengthen their growth through mindful preparation.

Experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event can have a lasting impact, with symptoms lingering for months or even years if they aren’t properly addressed. Many people, especially first responders, tend to push down their feelings and carry on as usual, even though they may be struggling to process high levels of stress, fear, guilt, and grief. In response, the brain sends out distress signals that create emotional, physical, and psychological symptoms that can negatively impact your overall health, concentration, emotional regulation, and more. In an effort to cope, many self-medicate with alcohol or other substances. While these offer temporary relief, symptoms often worsen as addiction takes hold and coping becomes even more difficult. You can put an end to this cycle. If you or a loved one needs help recovering from addiction and/or mental health issues, you can seek recovery and healing through our First Responders Wellness program. To learn more, please contact our staff 24/7 or call True Recovery at (888) 743-0490.