By Aaren Nellen, Engine Captain
Currently Detailed as Fire Management Officer
Pine Ridge Ranger District,
Nebraska National Forest and Grasslands
In emergency management services, stress is a known operational constraint for which we train to manage and/or mitigate. We strive to twist and harness it to our advantage. Sometimes we bury it in a deep dark hole in the back of our minds and choose to kick the can down the road.
Risk and its related stress are inherently intertwined throughout our careers. Actions and interactions range from tailgate safety sessions, risk management analysis, programs such as “take 10 at 2”, Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM), Facilitated Learning Analyses (FLA), You Will Not Stand Alone (YWNSA), and even the application of the Incident Command System (ICS) in the field. These are all intended to—in some way—identify, dissect, mitigate, manage, provide support for and/or teach from stressors related to hazards, values, and consequences that we are subjected to in what has become our normal operating environment.
I Need a “Nice Relaxing Fire”
I have found that this operational stress derived from risk has become so normalized in my life that I actually find myself needing to engage in “a nice relaxing fire” as a mitigation for the stress found in the administrative component of my job as well as in my personal life. Operational engagement can be an addictive coping mechanism in its own convoluted way.
We, as a culture, are very good at making quality and educated decisions on a short timeline and consequentially receiving feedback in the form of either success or failure in an equally timely fashion.
We are Horrible at Managing Administrative Stress
In my process of soul searching, as well as through my interactions with coworkers across the fire service, I have come to find that we (emergency managers) are collectively horrible at managing long term or administrative stress. I don’t know if we consciously realize that these stressors are still tied to risk and values. Sometimes I think that we just pretend to understand consequences over time.
All too often there are few if any “slide-shows” to draw from. There are no answers or decisions that will generate timely feedback as to success or failure. There are seldom checklists, complexity analysis, or support mechanisms in place to manage long-term stress due to things like administrative challenges, programmatic change, career evolvement, budgetary pendulums, interpersonal conflict, or relationship problems outside of work that are all too prevalent in our culture.
It almost seems as though our skillsets in decision making “on the line” become counter-productive to our skills in managing “off the line” risk and stress. I find it ironic, in this sense, that we must first acquire significant fireline skills before we even have the opportunity for exposure to administrative duties in the fire service—because many of us consider “FMO” as an end state in our careers. Where are the administrative skills training curriculum? Considering the training that is available, are they applied at the appropriate time?
Because I am mission focused, I am always driving toward a solution to whatever problem has been presented to me. What is it that can be done to mitigate this problem and lead to a reduction of this risk and stress that I feel “off the line”—and can it be done in a timely manner?
Is this where decisions pertaining to alcohol consumption, drug use, divorce, or suicide come into play?
Are these decisions not just an “easy out” but rather a simple and pointed solution to a complicated situation that garners immediate reward by either temporarily or permanently removing the risk or stressor from our operating picture? That’s what we’re trained to do. Right?
So the key questions are: How can we prepare ourselves and those coming up to develop tools and practices that will help us navigate all the kinds of stress that we will encounter outside of the incident management world? What coping skills or tools can we develop and normalize to make ourselves more at ease to tackle stresses when we are not operationally engaged?
I don’t have the answers. But maybe if we start talking about it we can discover some together.
[Aaren Nellen’s various duties include: Forest Training Officer, Dispatch Zone Training Committee Chair, Zone (three Districts) ATV Instructor, active instructor for various locally hosted and academy hosted 1-200 level courses, active instructor for Rocky Mountain Training Center hosted RX301/341.]