KEEP BACK 300 FEET from Stress!


Chief Sam DiGiovanna

Photo Courtesy of Landon Jensen

In the fire service, we’re good at maintaining collapse zones, isolating and denying entry at haz-mat incidents, and establishing perimeters during brush fires, incidents involving wires down, and traffic accidents. Most of our rigs say “KEEP BACK 300 FEET” to warn bystanders of the dangers.

But what about creating a safe zone from stress? An old saying comes to mind, “Your mind is like a dangerous neighborhood – don’t go there!” I can’t count the number of times I have found myself wondering how I “got there.”

For firefighters, the ability to manage stress is critical, because we have plenty of stress from our jobs. When on duty, we must be constantly ready to go, and that hyper-vigilance is a form of stress. So it’s even more important that we control the other stressors in our lives and learn to relax when we can. But how?

We think about stress as coming from the outside – things people say or do or don’t do, appliances that break at inopportune times, or friends or family who worry us with their actions or disappoint us when they fail to live up to the standards we set. However, in fact, our stress doesn’t come from the outside, but rather from the inside.

Many of you may have had an opportunity to attend a presentation by risk management expert and Lexipol co-founder Gordon Graham. Gordon talks a lot about “proximate causes” and “root causes” of tragedies in public safety. The proximate causes are those things that happen right before the tragedy, so we often focus on them. But Gordon urges us to dig deeper, to find the root causes that are the real contributor to something going wrong. For instance, we might be tempted to blame an apparatus backing accident on the failure to use a spotter. But that’s a proximate cause – the root cause might be the department’s failure to establish a backing policy and procedure. Or it could be failure to train the apparatus operators properly on the policy. Or it might be that the apparatus operator was extremely fatigued and as a result made a poor decision to operate without a backer. There can be multiple root causes just as there can be multiple proximate causes.

So, what does all this have to do with stress? Think of the outside triggers as proximate causes. You might think you’re stressed out because the traffic is terrible and you’ll be late. But maybe it’s because you argued with your teenage son before you left. Or because you’ve put off repairing the car and every additional minute you spend in it is a reminder. There’s not always some big secret trigger for stress, but often the little things that get to us have deeper roots. Understanding that is key to learning to manage stress.

With the idea of proximate stressors and root cause stressors as a foundation, let’s look at a few other tips for dialing it back:

Put your mind on a healthy diet! Our minds are no different than our bodies – if we feed them garbage, we will get garbage in return. Are you allowing yourself to binge on depressing news, violent video games, or mean-spirited reality TV shows? When you sit around the fire house kitchen table with your fellow firefighters, do gossip and complaints dominate? There’s nothing wrong with indulging in entertainment from time to time, but strive for balance. Read an inspirational memoir, watch a documentary, or go for a walk in a park and listen – really listen – to all the natural life around you. You’ve been given the freedom to choose what you think about – now exercise that right!

Know your triggers and set limits. We all have things that set us over the edge – it may be when our spouse forgets to do the laundry, or when we arrive at work to find the apparatus tool compartments in disarray. Try to be aware of these triggers and anticipate when they may happen. Then, when the negative thoughts start churning, you can say “no” firmly and calmly. At the same time, know your limits and stick to them. Whether in your personal or professional life, taking on more than you can handle is a surefire recipe for stress.

Be open to changing and asking others to change. Certain people in your life may be triggers for stress. Guess what? That means YOU might be triggering someone else’s stress! Rather than resorting to broad statements such as, “He’s so annoying,” try to identify specific behaviors that cause you concern. Communicate your concerns in an open and respectful way. Be open-minded and compromise. When you ask someone to change their behavior, be willing to change yours.

Wondering whether you have too much stress in your life? Here is a post traumatic stress self-assessment. You can click here for a self-care checklist following critical incidents.

What you think affects the way you feel; the way you feel affects the way you act. Keep your mind on the right things. And keep back from stress!

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.  Sam also serves as Executive Vice President of Fire Operations at CORDICO INC.