Mental Wellness – It’s in Your Hands!


Chief Sam DiGiovanna

Photo Courtesy of Landon Jensen

If you’re in the fire service, you should be honored, grateful and happy. It is one of the most rewarding and exciting careers available. But if that’s true, why are there so many unhappy firefighters? You know the type — those who assume leadership is out to get them, or leaders who endlessly grumble about how firefighters make their lives difficult. Maybe you are one of these unhappy people?

In addition to being a fire chief, I also work for Cordico, a company that creates Apps for First Responders to ensure mental, emotional health and well being 24/7 – 365 right from your phone!

Human behavior and happiness always fascinated me. When it comes to happiness and emotional health, there are three important criteria for success:

  1. Emotional well being must be periodically kept in check and updated.
  2. Happiness must be consistent with your practice personally and professionally.
  3. It must be reinforced through training. Yes, training your mind!

Review and update
Just as we need to periodically review our department policies, we need to periodically take stock of our personal happiness. Most people worry about their own plans, promotions and agendas, and don’t look out for the interests of others. They don’t get up in the morning and give their first thought to how someone else is doing, because they’re concerned with their own problems.

If this describes you, it may be time for an update. The starting point for all happiness is shifting the focus away from yourself. I have seen too many fire service personnel tune into the WIIFM (What’s In It For Me) station 24/7 on the personal dial all the time!

If all you think about is yourself, you’re going to be a pretty miserable person. If you truly want to be happy in life, you have to care about the needs of those around you. Yes, everyone! Your fellow firefighters, the community you serve and even the administration.

Make it consistent with your practice
Your attitude about happiness is meaningless if you don’t back it up with action. Think about it from a fire service perspective: Your policy says to wear SCBA at fires until atmospheric monitoring gives the all-clear to remove it. But if your firefighters routinely perform overhaul without being on air, your policy is inconsistent with your practice — and that means your policy is ineffective.

So, you can tell yourself — and others — that you’re a happy, positive person. But is that consistent with your actions? Of course we can’t all be “bubbly” extroverts who always see the glass half-full. But we can establish a “policy” of trying to remain positive and of seeing good in others.

Reinforce through training
If you want to be one of those rare, unselfish people, you’ve got to shift your focus away from yourself to other people. That’s not something that comes naturally, so it’s something you have to learn to do.

I’ve always liked this quote from Philippians 2:4: “Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.” Instead of griping about missed opportunities, promotions or events, be intentional about stepping outside yourself and into the needs of others, where you’ll find happiness in serving others.

That may seem odd — training to be happy? — but it’s really no different than any other policy. If it sits on a shelf gathering dust, it isn’t doing you any good. If you train on it regularly, however, it becomes an innate part of who you are and how you act and react to situations.

Time for change?
When we become firefighters, we take an oath to serve others. That’s a big responsibility, but fortunately for us, it’s also what makes the job so great. If you’ve lost touch with that perspective, it may be time for an attitude and behavior adjustment.

Each mental health condition has its own signs and symptoms. In general, however, professional help might be needed if you experience:

  • Marked changes in personality, eating or sleeping patterns
  • An inability to cope with problems or daily activities
  • Feeling of disconnection or withdrawal from normal activities
  • Unusual or “magical” thinking
  • Excessive anxiety
  • Prolonged sadness, depression or apathy
  • Thoughts or statements about suicide or harming others
  • Substance misuse
  • Extreme mood swings
  • Excessive anger, hostility or violent behavior

Many people who have mental health disorders consider their signs and symptoms a normal part of life or avoid treatment out of shame or fear. If you’re concerned about your mental health, don’t hesitate to seek advice.

About Chief Sam DiGiovanna

Sam DiGiovanna is a 33-year fire service veteran. He started with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, served as fire chief at the Monrovia Fire Department and currently serves as chief at the Verdugo Fire Academy in Glendale, Calif.