Safe Call Now

Monday, September 4, 2017

First Responder Burnout and Disaster Work

By Dr. Tania Glenn
During large scale events and disasters, first responders (police, fire, EMS, communications and hospital personnel) who are a little, somewhat, or very burned out often experience significantly more complicated burnout at the end of a disaster. Burnout is the result of coupling extremely high, sometimes unrealistic expectations with good intentions, and not having enough balance in one’s life.
The onset of burnout happens slowly. The process is hard to identify because it can be quite subtle. It happens like this: You enter a career to help others. You work hard and love your job. You put in a lot of hours, work overtime or second jobs, and surround yourself and your life with things and people that are associated with public safety. You work holidays and weekends because emergency services never rest. For a while, this feels great. 

Over time, however, you realize that the majority of what you deal with is the dark and negative side of life. You respond to those who have called 911 only to be met with anger, hostility, disrespect, apathy and sometimes aggression. You see some horrible things. You witness death and trauma. 

To further the process along, you begin to experience the effects that shift work and working on holidays can have on your personal life. If you are single, it is hard to meet people. If you are married, you notice the strains that your job places on your loved ones. You no longer have friends outside of work, and in your mind, you can never really get away from work. At the same time, you may be going through a major life challenge like a divorce, financial problems or the death of a loved one. These types of events are highly demanding of emotional and physical energy at a time when you have very little energy to give. Your personal energy gauge is chronically on empty.

Then we ask you to go to a disaster and give 150% of yourself, possibly more than once. While deployed, burnout sits on the back burner because the mission is so important and meaningful. At this point I warn first responders to not get sucked into the notion that your burnout is no longer there because you are feeling great about the mission. Instead, be prepared for your burnout to be exacerbated upon your return home. Be prepared so you can tackle it.