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Responder Fatigue: Coping with 2020’s Stressful Events

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared on EDM Digest.

By Dr. Randall HanifenFaculty Member, Emergency & Disaster Management at American Military University 

The year 2020 has been a busy time for disasters and the list of disasters looks to continue. However, how much stress can first responders take?

[Free Magazine: Understanding and Coping with First Responder Stress]

We started off with the COVID-19 pandemic. Next, there were the civil disturbances around the country, which are still ongoing.

Last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center announced that the United States would have a more severe hurricane season. Lastly, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other medical authorities have predicted a resurgence of COVID-19 in the fall and winter.

As a result, all of these events have culminated in first responder fatigue. While some people have attempted to lighten up the general stress with funny memes, the fatigue is a problem that needs to be addressed.

What Effects Have Current Disasters Imposed on First Responders?

The COVID-19 pandemic and its wide-ranging effects is a disaster event that most first responders have never experienced during their careers. While there have been pandemics throughout history, events with such severe changes and predictions have not occurred to the majority of first responders.

[Related: How Firefighters Are Coping with COVID-19]

The fear of the unknown, coupled with so many personal protection equipment (PPE) and sanitary practices in first responder organizations, has placed a high stress level on first responder personnel. In addition, this stress is coupled with the fear that they could unknowingly bring COVID-19 to their families.

[Related: Traumatic Stress from COVID-19 Raises Concerns for Front-Line Responders]

Information related to COVID-19 seems to change almost daily. The changes have been so frequent that first responders have grown tired of trying to keep up with the deluge of new information. In addition, planners in first responder organizations have dedicated nearly their entire time to mitigation and control efforts and are stressed about making the right plans to keep their personnel safe.

Stay-at-Home Orders Have Prevented First Responders from Many Stress-Relieving Activities

In addition to work-related stress, the stay-at-home orders that state governments put in place prevented first responders from any release of stress. For example, gyms and outdoor recreation were closed, and about the only stress-relieving activities available to first responders was to order takeout and watch television.

Similarly, liquor stores have reported exponential sales. For some people, that stress relief came through increased alcohol consumption.

COVID-19 First Responder Layoffs Are Also a Source of Mental Stress

Local governments throughout the country have announced that due to the economic losses from the pandemic, they would need to lay off police officers and fire department personnel. For many first responders, it seems that all of their personal sacrifices and changes have been rewarded with job terminations. The layoffs have placed an economic burden on the same people who were worried about infecting their families with COVID-19.

Civil Disturbances Have Also Contributed to First Responder Fatigue

In the past few weeks, there have been numerous civil disturbances across the country. Due to the nature of their work, public safety workers have been thrust to the front lines.

For example, local residents who just weeks ago held first responders in high regard are now throwing bricks at their vehicles, blocking their paths to incidents and even shooting them. Now in addition to an invisible threat, there is a visible threat of on-the-job injury or death for first responders. For example, firefighters are donning ballistic protection as they attempt control tactics.

Fortunately, many of our urban firefighters have plans in place for civil disturbance operations. However, protesters and looters have made it a point to perform their destructive behavior in many suburban areas with first responders who may not have the experience or the PPE to protect them from violence. As a result, a high degree of vigilance is necessary.

The Predicted 2020 Hurricane Season Will Add to First Responder Fatigue

The next large-scale disaster in 2020 will be an increased hurricane season. While the hurricane season may only affect a few departments in specific states, state Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC) and federal response resources have to be derived from local government responders.

For example, Florida often pulls personnel from Ohio to meet the needs of hurricane response efforts, as no government would have the daily staff to meet the expectations of a thorough response to a hurricane’s aftermath. Consequently, local organizations will need to pull first responders from their families already undergoing health-based and economic stress and further add to that stress.

Additionally, many of the first responders who are EMAC or federal response resources are compensated through a reimbursement process that requires a municipality to send help, calculate the overtime, and await reimbursement from the state or federal government. In some areas, first responder organizations do not have sufficient monies to pay their current staff to protect their community, so how will they find the money for helping other cities? This situation could result in delays in a full response to hurricanes, which will further stress first responders in hurricane-impacted areas.

So if you wonder why first responders may not be their usual jovial selves at this time, ask yourself if you could put up these types of multiple stress factors over the long term. The best way to alleviate first responder fatigue is to take care of each other and yourselves, and seek help if needed. No one is above this type and duration of mental stress.

Responder fatigueAbout the Author: Dr. Randall W. Hanifen is a shift commander at a medium-sized suburban fire department in the northern part of the Cincinnati area and a fire service consultant. He is also a faculty member at American Military University, teaching courses in its Emergency & Disaster Management program. He has a B.S. in Fire Administration, a M.S. in Fire Service Executive Leadership, and a Ph.D. in Executive Management of Homeland Security. He is the associate author of Disaster Planning and Control. Randall serves as the Executive Chairperson of a County Technical Rescue Team, a Taskforce Leader for FEMA’s Ohio Task Force 1 US&R team, and is the Vice-Chair of IAFC Company Officers Section. He serves as a member of NFPA 1021 Fire Officer and NFPA 1026 Incident Management committees He is credentialed as a Fire Officer by the Center for Public Safety Excellence and has been accepted as a Fellow to the Institute of Fire Engineers. Randall has provided presentations and trainings for the Ohio Fire Chief’s Association, Fire Rescue International, Emergency Management Institute, and the IAFC Board of Directors. 

Dr. Randall Hanifen serves as a shift commander at a medium-sized suburban fire department in the northern part of the Cincinnati area. Randall is the CEO/principal consultant of an emergency services consulting firm, providing analysis and solutions related to organizational structuring of fire and EMS organizations. He is the chairperson and operations manager for a county technical rescue team. From a state and national perspective, he serves as a taskforce leader for one of FEMA's urban search and rescue teams, which responds to presidential declared disasters. From an academic standpoint, Randall has a bachelor’s degree in fire administration, a master’s degree in executive fire service leadership, and a doctoral degree in business administration with a specialization in homeland security. He is the associate author of “Disaster Planning and Control” (Penwell, 2009), which provides first responders with guidance through all types of disasters.

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