Mission Deprivation: The Stress of Not Experiencing the Stress

Commentary by Brett Snow

When trying to learn about the emotional and psychological side effects common within the fire service, the potential impacts of feeling guilty and/or unfulfilled routinely receives little to no attention. Most research conducted on first responders focuses more on post-traumatic exposure, toxic exposure, physical demands, and unavoidable adaptations such as sleep deprivation. But what about “pre-traumatic stress”? What is known about the mindsets of first responders during the downtimes? I conducted a recent survey to try and get an idea that received 931 responses. The data collected suggests what might be going on in the minds of first responders who feel deprived of doing the job. This may fall in line with our need for a sense of purpose. The lack of a sense of purpose or even knowing what our purpose is can lead to a struggle with self-worth. This will inevitably bleed into our personal and family life, raising the potential for marital issues and maladaptive behaviors. What then is this likely to become? A side effect of a stressor mirroring that which is experienced in the line of duty.

Total responses: 931

  • Feel guilty when praised in public: 456 (48.98 percent)
  • Feel unfulfilled: 449 (48.23 percent)

Trained in fire suppression: 446 (47.91 percent)

  • 202 (having a role in fire duty) upset when missing fires (45.29 percent)

Single-role medic: 432 (46.4 percent)

  • 199 upset when missing quality EMS runs (46.06 percent)

Volunteers- 113 (12.14 percent) of 931.

  • Guilt: 63 (55.75 percent)
  • Feel unfulfilled: 51(45.13 percent)
  • Feel they lack experience: 47 (41.59 percent)
  • Too slow of a department: 52 (46.02 percent)
  • Out of 78 fire-trained members, 42 (53.85 percent) get upset with missing fires
  • Out of 78 cross-trained members, 48 (61.54 percent) get upset with missing EMS

Full time: 610 (65.52 percent) of 931.

  • Guilt: 300 (49.18 percent)
  • Feel unfulfilled:305 (50 percent)
  • Feel they lack experience: 169 (27.7 percent)
  • Too slow of department: 97 (15.9 percent)
  • Out of 259 fire-trained members, 120 (46.33 percent) get upset with missing fires
  • Out of 523 cross-trained members, 222 (42.45 percent) get upset with missing EMS

                   Volunteer compared to full time


0-5 years (57) 
Guilt: 26(45.61 percent)
Feel they lack experience: 32 (56.14 percent)
Feel unfulfilled: 28 (49.12 percent)                                                                          
20+ years (23)
Guilt: 7(30.43 percent)
Feel they lack experience: 4 (17.39 percent)
Feel unfulfilled: 8 (34.78 percent)  

Upset from mission deprivation:

0-5 years
Out of 37 (fire trained), 23 (62.16 percent) get upset with missing fires
Out of 38 (cross trained)- 29 (76.32 percent) upset with missing EMS calls
20+ years
Out of 14 (fire trained), 7 (50 percent) get upset with missing fires
Out of 14 (cross trained), 6 (42.86 percent) upset with missing EMS calls


0-5 years (192)
Guilt: 137 (71.35 percent)
Feel they lack in experience: 94 (48.96 percent)
Feel unfulfilled: 116 (60.42 percent) 
20-plus year (159)
Guilt: 98 (61.64 percent)
Feel they lack in experience: 23 (14.47 percent)
Feel unfulfilled: 76 (47.8 percent)                   

Upset from mission deprivation

Out of 54 (fire trained), 27 (50 percent) get upset with missing fires
Out of185 (cross trained), 154 (83.24 percent) upset with missing EMS calls              
Out of 106 (fire trained) 50 (47.17 percent) get upset with missing fires
Out of 115 (cross trained), 20 (17.39 percent) upset with missing EMS calls

Nearly half of the 931 respondents claimed to feel guilty when praised in public. Additionally, nearly half of the respondents, in relation to their primary roles, claimed to experience feeling upset when they miss an incident such as a structure fire or an above-average medical response. Provided are the data looking at both ends of the spectrum concerning years of experience. There is a noticeable and logical downward trend of claims to having a lack in experience between service years of less than five and greater than 20. An appearing correlation between having a lack in experience and feeling guilty and/or unfulfilled, captured amongst those having five years or less, is disproven by the data collected from those of 20-plus years of service time. Therefore we cannot form a conclusion that the feeling of guilt and/or unfulfillment is in direct correlation to years of service time and one’s feelings toward self-competency.

However, a more convincing correlation does seem to exist between unfulfillment, guilt, and the emotion attached to “mission deprivation.” Regardless of the years of service or status (full-time or volunteer), guilt and unfulfillment appear to coexist. Although we cannot at this point prove causality, we can reasonably argue that members experiencing either a feeling of guilt or a sense of unfulfillment will likely be plagued with a sense of the other. But why might this be? What is the potential precursor to these unhealthy beliefs? The answer may reside within the emotional impact of being deprived of the mission. When an individual chooses to become a first responder, they do so with the intent of putting into action what they have spent months or years training for.    

It’s possible that these feelings of shame, guilt, devalued self-worth, lost sense of purpose, etc., may prove to be a stress derived from mission deprivation, which could very well stand alone as a source for developing side effects that mimic those associated with a maladaptive response to traumatic exposure.

As a retired 32-year member of the fire service, I can attest to feeling angry and frustrated after learning about a fire I missed, or going through a stretch of time without experiencing a challenging, or worthwhile incident. This greatly affected my mood both at home and at work. I viewed challenging incidences as a way to test my abilities and to further grow in wisdom through lessons learned. Furthermore, the more opportunities to put my skills into action. Emergency incidents also afforded an opportunity for redemption of recent mistakes that may have occurred. Without this moment of redemption, I tended to struggle with self-confidence issues, which seemed to develop into a form of anxiety in relation to the duration of mission deprivation. 

Two questions arise:

  • Will “mission deprivation” become a legitimate concern in the fire service?
  • If so, can we differentiate it from the other known stressors?

BRETT SNOW has more than 32 years of fire service experience and is a retired lieutenant from the Chicago (IL) Fire Department where he completed his last 20-plus years. He holds a PhD in Clinical Christian Counseling and practices clinical Pastoral counseling for Surviving Life Ministries.

More information: https://sl-ministries.com/

This commentary reflects the opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of Fire Engineering. It has not undergone Fire Engineering‘s peer-review process.

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