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You can go to the many fire service-related outlets or social media sites every day and read comments left by firefighters as to why they love being firefighters.

The first book that I read on this subject was Dennis Smith’s “Firefighters”. It was a series of interviews that described in the firefighters’ own words on why they loved what they did. It was released in 1988 in hardcover.

More recently (2008), Rick Lasky released his “Pride and Ownership: A Firefighter’s Love for the Job”. Rick captured the essence perfectly and in a style that was uniquely Rick’s. He articulates what many firefighters feel, but struggle to describe or to explain.

An article in a Sunday paper got me to wondering; if firefighters love what they do, then why is the firefighting profession listed as Number 2 on the list of most stressful jobs of 2012?

What isn’t clear in the article is the type of stress that the author is referring to. There are many types of stress and I can only assume from the tone of the article that they were writing about mental stress. However; there are many types of mental stress as well. But, I will address it in general terms.

The 10 most stressful jobs of 2012 are:

10. Taxi Driver

 9. Photojournalist

 8. Corporate executive

 7. Public relations executive

 6. Event coordinator

 5. Police officer

 4. Military general

 3. Airline pilot

 2. Firefighter

 1. Enlisted soldier

Read the full article:

The article’s author offers opinions for the causes of the stress and some of them might have merit, but firefighters have a uniquely different view of the job that they do.

When “firefighting” as an occupation or an avocation is mentioned, it is spoken, using very positive adjectives to describe it. For instance:

“I love what I do”.

“It’s not a job; it’s a calling”.

“It’s the best job in the world”.

“I get a rush when we are at a job”.

“I’m happiest when I’m with my crew”.

“We are a family; a brotherhood”.

“There’s nothing like it”.

When a firefighter talks about it, there is excitement in their eyes, a smile on their face and a mouth that won’t run out of things to say about a job that defines them as a person.

We talk and talk about the “big ones” and of some of the extraordinary efforts made by others that we were witness to. You might even get a mention, but you will deflect it with a “That was nothing”, but inside; you are proud that your peers noticed your effort.

All of the jokes, the good times, the meals shared, training together, responding together, attending each others’ family milestones and retirements…

How could this possibly be stressful?

Many firefighters recognize their mortality and know that, on any given day, that they may perish or that a fellow brother or sister could. But those thoughts remain deep inside of them and thoughts of accomplishing their mission are what occupy their minds and even if they are thinking about their mortality, they don’t talk about it much; if at all.

Firefighting is their dream job. They have been preparing to be a firefighter since they were a kid. It is everything that they had hoped for times ten!

Does any of this sound stressful to you?

According to Dr. Melissa Conrad Stoppler:

Stress may be considered as any physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental unrest and that may be a factor in disease causation. Physical and chemical factors that can cause stress include trauma, infections, toxins, illnesses, and injuries of any sort. Emotional causes of stress and tension are numerous and varied. While many people associate the term ‘stress’ with psychological stress, scientists and physicians use this term to denote any force that impairs the stability and balance of bodily functions.

If stress disrupts body balance and function, then is all stress bad? Not necessarily. A mild degree of stress and tension can sometimes be beneficial. For example, feeling mildly stressed when carrying out a project or assignment often compels us to do a good job, focus better, and work energetically.

Likewise, exercising can produce a temporary stress on some body functions, but its health benefits are indisputable. It is only when stress is overwhelming, or poorly managed, that its negative effects appear.

An important goal for those under stress is the management of life stresses. Elimination of stress is unrealistic, since stress is a part of normal life. It's impossible to completely eliminate stress, and it would not be advisable to do so. Instead, we can learn to manage stress so that we have control over our stress and its effects on our physical and mental health.

If we take that and apply it to what I have written so far, I have described “good stress”.

Bad stress as described by Dr. Stoppler could be sleep deprivation, the many obstacles getting to the scene, being short handed, critical injuries requiring swift decisions, deceased victims, a Mayday call or anything pulled from Murphy’s playbook are just some of the bad stuff that plays out everyday in this country.

Add crappy pay,the threat of loss of jobs or the loss of health benefits as you fight cancer during your “retirement” and I have to wonder if the good outweighs the bad.

I know that the “bad stress” isn’t enough to discourage those who are serving and those wishing to serve. 1.3 million are still answering the call and there are more wanting to get in than are getting out. And that is good.

We seem to be willing to risk the “chemical” changes to our body that over the years, will impact our good health because of the love for the job. Many will say that they don’t feel stress, but it’s sneaky stuff. Just like we may not know if we’ve had one too many barley pops, the cumulative effect of stress may be building and might tap you on the shoulder at a most inopportune time. It is here that I hope that good will triumph over bad.

I would add one more descriptive reason to the list and that is:

“It is worth the sacrifice” and “it” is friends, strangers, neighbors, families and the communities that we serve.


The opinions and views expressed are those of the article’s author, Art Goodrich, who also writes as ChiefReason. They do not reflect the opinions and views of, Fire Engineering Magazine, PennWell Corporation or his dog, Chopper. All articles by the author are protected by federal copyright and cannot be reproduced in any form without expressed permission.

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