Firefighters, others receiving help to cope with stress



A firefighter's day can be extreme. At any time, as in last week's fire at the Department of Public Works garage on West Housatonic Street, it can mean putting on 75 pounds of gear, rushing into a burning building while lugging a fire hose, and working, at risk of injury and death, in temperatures of 300 to 400 degrees or higher.

There are also 24-hour shifts.

A firefighter's job was ranked among the most stressful civilian occupations in a recent survey by job-service finder, CareerCast. Stressful work is described as physical demanding, dangerous, competitive, done in the public eye and under deadline.

"Our heartbeat goes flying high and there are stressors building up in the body and the adrenaline is rushing while you're driving to the scene," said Pittsfield Fire Chief Robert Czerwinski.

He said it was rare a decade ago to acknowledge stress for first responders, like firemen, but in recent years public safety officials are being taught how to recognize stress, which can manifest itself in headaches, chest pain, fatigue, loss of appetite, angry outbursts, or drug and alcohol abuse.

Czerwinski said that 60 percent of deaths of active-duty firefighters in 2011 were attributed to heart attacks.

Pittsfield firefighters can seek counseling through an Employee Assistance Program, in which firefighters can talk to counselors. Firefighters can often relate more easily to each other, Czerwinski said, so some have also been trained to counsel others.

Dealing with stress can be particularly difficult for first responders because performing under stress is part of the job, said Lin da Moriarty, executive director of the Western Massachusetts Emergency Services Committee.

The mentality is "it doesn't matter if you're a man or woman you should be able to handle this without falling apart," Moriarty said.

The nonprofit assists first responders -- everyone from police, firefighters, ambulance crews, dispatchers and others --who are struggling with emotional stress.

In recent years, she said there have been strides taken to acknowledge the stress public safety officials deal with, but there is a lack of recognition of the toll stress can take.

As an emergency medical technician and later a paramedic in the early 1980s, Moriarty said she personally found exercise to be therapeutic, but did not do enough of it. She said first responders are encouraged to have outside hobbies and interests, but many make the long hours of work a lifestyle.

Many public safety departments offer incentives like passes to recreational sites to get employees' minds off work. Openly communicating with others can be also important, Moriarty said, adding spouses need to be alert to stress signs.

Brian Andrews, 49, who runs Pittsfield-based County Ambulance, can still recall a four- to six-week stretch two decades ago when he was an emergency medical technician, arriving on calls for babies who had suffered from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Being a young father with babies of his own at the time, it hit him hard.

He said when he went to school in the 1980s, he was never taught ways to deal with stress. Today, he said, EMTs take courses as part of their training.

"Every month we see people referred to employee assistance and they talk to somebody and get the resources to get through this," said Andrews,. He worked with colleagues and Moriarty's Western Massachusetts Emergency Services Committee to develop "debriefing" sessions for first responders encountering traumatic situations.

Regardless of age or experience, Moriarty said that the suicide of a co-worker, a mass casualty, or any event that draws interest from the media can be traumatic.

In such cases, she said she tells first responders to remember that they are "normal people going through an abnormal

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High-stress jobs

Job are stressful when dangerous, physically demanding, competitive, involve risk of life, are done in the public eye, and entail deadlines. The most stressful civilian jobs are said to be:

• Firefighter

• Commercial airline pilot

• Public-relations executive

• Senior corporate executive

• Photojournalist

• Newspaper reporter

• Taxi driver

• Police officer

List compiled by CareerCast


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