Commanding Stress

Tom Dunne

The chief was hoping to finally receive some good news. He had been at the scene for more than a half hour, and things were not going well. Noise echoed throughout the hospital lobby, making it hard for him to concentrate at the command post. A major electrical problem in the area had knocked out power to a four-block area, and a smoke condition in the hospital basement had somehow drifted through vertical channels up to the seventh floor. The heavy concrete construction of the building initially hindered radio communication with firefighters on the upper floors; now, no transmissions were being received at all. The chief ordered a unit to ascend the stairs in an attempt to set up a radio relay and get some sense of what was happening above.

Moments later, the building engineer informed him that the hospital’s emergency generators were malfunctioning and there was a possibility of complete power loss. He also indicated that doctors were performing surgery in two separate operating rooms. As the chief contemplated his predicament, sweat trickled down his back in the 90°F heat.


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Why Not “Stress Training”?

The fire service has benefited from excellent training on using the incident command system, performing fireground size-up, and establishing command presence. At the same time, recognition of the physical stress of our work has reinforced our commitment to nutrition and aerobic training. However, as we continue to train new chiefs and company officers, we tend to ignore the issue of handling the stress they will undoubtedly face when they assume their new roles.

Firefighting is routinely listed in the top 10 most stressful occupations in America. Anyone who commands a complex fire or emergency will experience the mental and psychological pressures of that position, especially if the operation is going poorly. Multiple tasks, incomplete or conflicting information, and the high stakes involved in life-and-death decisions all contribute to making our profession uniquely challenging.

Chiefs are not the only ones subjected to stress. Firefighters generally work erratic hours and cope with sleep deprivation. Company officers bear the responsibility for the firefighters they supervise and often function as the initial incident commander at fire operations. Fire personnel also bear the same day-to-day life stresses that civilians face. Personality conflicts, traffic congestion, and overscheduling take a toll on all of us.

Stress is a natural response to what we experience on the fireground. A little will sharpen us; too much will give us a myopic perspective of a problem and limit our ability to make good decisions. In a sense, we are fighting not only fire at an operation but also our instincts. Given the toll that stress takes on our ability to think effectively, the better prepared we are to handle stress, the better we will function as firefighters.

Fireground Stressors

At least four key elements contribute to stress on the fireground.

Uncertainty. First, there is uncertainty. We study, train, and develop standard operating procedures to guide us in the best course of action in any scenario. There are, however, endless unknowns at any fire. Substandard construction, illegal occupancies, hazardous building contents, and the vagaries of human behavior can all lead to unanticipated dangers. At times, firefighting can be a very inexact science.

Complexity of work. This also causes stress. Even a “simple” structural fire necessitates initiating a number of concurrent tasks. Water supply, fire attack, search, and exposure protection all have to be carefully coordinated. Throw in an extreme life hazard or a sudden loss of water, and the complexity of the job grows geometrically.

Time restraints. The time restraints we deal with also create stress. Every fire is a ticking clock. The longer it takes to control the fire, the more dangerous it becomes. As we slowly watch our initial strategy fail to accomplish what we hoped it would, there is a real sense of urgency in quickly establishing a new approach before things spiral out of control.

Life and death. Add the high stakes/life-and-death element to the other three factors, and you come up with a volatile mix of psychological pressures. Fireground stress, like life stress in general, stems from a sense of loss of control. We can put water on the fire, but we can’t initially know for sure just how far the fire has spread. We can prepare for the unknown, but we never really know what life-threatening traps await us.

Although all members of the fire service are subject to this stress, the stress levels definitely increase as one moves up the firefighting stress pyramid. Firefighters must deal with the danger and uncertainties of their work, but they can at least exert some physical control over their environment. They can create a mental picture of their position in the fire building to assist them in rapidly getting out if conditions deteriorate. They can open the nozzle on a fire that suddenly appears or intensifies. They are members of a team, and each member watches out for the other, but they are not held responsible for the success of the overall strategy.

The Company Officer’s Situation

The situation changes for the company officer. In some smaller departments, he may have to get involved in the physical hose stretch or forcible entry work. However, he is still directly responsible for the well-being of his personnel and, in some cases, may have to set the overall strategy in place. If his supervision ranges to firefighters beyond his line of sight, he is also in that awkward position of loss of control. He has limited physical capability and has to rely on the activities of others to achieve success.

The Chief

The chief lies at the top of the pay scale but is also at the top of the stress pyramid. He is totally reliant on his personnel to perform the tactics needed to make his strategy work. No matter how desperately he needs a second hoseline placed in position on the floor above the fire or in the exposure, he cannot do it himself. The time needed to accomplish a task can seem to last forever from his perspective at the command post. He alone is ultimately held responsible; but, in a sense, he cannot personally control anything. There is indeed a reason why the expression “the loneliness of command” was created.

Biology of Stress

Some stress is good for you. The right amount of stress can serve to sharpen you on the fireground and motivate you in life. The difficulty arises when we face severe job stress. Such pressures weaken our ability to make good decisions just at the time when quick, appropriate choices are called for. A brief look at the biology of stress illustrates what we are facing.

Basically, our senses are hooked up to two different paths, one to the amygdala and one to the cortex. The amygdala is a small region of the brain that causes the “startle reflex” when we are suddenly attacked, surprised, or otherwise pressured. This leads to increased breathing and heart rates along with a flow of adrenaline as the body tries to rapidly strengthen itself. Unfortunately, this also causes us to maintain a more myopic view of a situation instead of the overall perspective needed to formulate an effective plan of action.

The cortex, on the other hand, allows us to analyze information as it is received and encourages analytical decisions and thought processes. The problem is that the effects of the amygdala occur more quickly than the thought processes that are more slowly analyzed by the cortex. Our body’s initial reaction to stress is reactive rather than rational. Even simple tasks become more difficult when we are stressed and our decision making becomes rigid and limited.

Our ability to function is also affected by our heart rate. Again, some stress is good for us. The standing heart rate for most people is around 75 beats per minute (bpm). If, while on the fireground, this rate increases to approximately 115 to 145 bpm, we are actually at our best performance level. But, in an extremely difficult situation, this rate can shoot up to 200 bpm, at which point our ability to think and function effectively diminishes.

Dealing with Stress

Fortunately, there are means of dealing with this biological trap. The first step is to acknowledge the existence of stress in our line of work. Every fire we respond to involves strategy, tactics, and some level of stress. Firefighters will routinely debate the first two but will seldom want to discuss the last one. This is understandable since none of us wants to appear weak or incapable in the tough and aggressive culture of firefighting. The key thing to remember is that if you are feeling it, everyone else is feeling it, even if they don’t admit it. Acknowledge the stress you feel and add it to the list of challenges for which you can train.

Establish routines in your firefighting duties. Respond to every call with the mindset of controlling as much as you can. This involves giving yourself the benefit of gathering as much information as possible before you have to put it to use. How might the weather change and affect your operations? What personnel can you expect to work with, and what are their capabilities? Are there any local building construction or occupancy issues that might create an especially dangerous fire challenge? Knowledge truly is power, and the better prepared you are for an incident, the lower your stress will be.

Once you arrive at the scene of a fire, remember that you can’t do it all—even if you feel like you want to. You are going to have to assign duties and responsibilities. This will require an implicit trust in your crew’s abilities. If you have previously taken the time to know the personnel you can expect to see at an incident, you will feel more confident and less stressed when you delegate tasks to them.

When you are performing a size-up or managing a fire, try to maintain a position that is relatively clear of background noise. Being in proximity to an operating fire apparatus, forcible entry work, and breaking glass will challenge your ability to think clearly and raise your stress level. Again, you want to exert as much control as possible on the challenges you face.

It also helps to make a conscious decision to “harden” yourself when dealing with stressful situations. The fire you are trying to control is potentially deadly; somewhat unpredictable; and, in most cases, extremely damaging. However, you did not start the fire. Nor are you responsible for the factors that may cause it to be extremely difficult to control. Your attitude has to focus on the reality that you are there to extinguish the fire in the most efficient, least destructive manner. In this process, you will make use of all the hard-earned training and experience that you have accumulated. Concentrate on being the positive, well-intended influence that you offer as a firefighter instead of on the frustration and fear that you face during the chaos of fighting a fire. Decide to put fear and negative thinking “in a box” and walk away from them.

Training to Handle Stress

It is possible to train for stress just as you train to stretch hoselines, position apparatus, and perform size-up. If you want to function well under stress, you must be willing to train under stress. Part of this involves seeking out difficult assignments even if they initially seem uncomfortable or unappealing. There is a lot to be said for getting acclimated with the personnel and challenges of one particular response area. However, you can limit your growth as a firefighter if you remain too long in one spot. Assignments that involve busier call activity, increased fire duty, and the unique work found in high-rise districts will make you a more complete firefighter. The challenges you experience and the difficulties you must overcome will also make you better prepared to function under stress. The unfamiliar makes you uncomfortable, and discomfort can make you stronger over time.

The way we conduct training sessions can help prepare us for handling stress. Chiefs, company officers, and firefighters benefit from the fire simulation training programs presented both in classrooms and online. The smoke and fire special effects generated are great for reinforcing lessons in strategies and tactics. However, they should ideally be conducted in a somewhat stressful atmosphere to get their greatest benefit. Subjecting a student to background noise, peer pressure, time restraints, and numerous problems in the scenario will make him feel discomfort as he tries to resolve his challenge, but his ability to work with this discomfort will carry over when he is facing a real-life situation on the fireground.

Finally, there is a lot to be said for knowing when to turn the job off. Firefighting is a great life, but it is not the only life. You will have experiences as a firefighter that are not the norm for people who do not do our kind of work. The unique pressures and dangers to which we are occasionally subjected can have residual effects if we take them home with us. Intimate involvement with the devastation caused by fire can actually give you a greater appreciation for the good things in life. Take the time to enjoy people and pleasurable experiences outside of the fire service. You will find that they can help you unwind and achieve a healthy perspective of your work-related stress.

Things turned out well for the chief in the hospital scenario described above. He took a deep breath and reevaluated the situation. He forced himself to slow down, draw on his experience, and communicate with purpose and clarity. And, with some outstanding help from his firefighters, the incident was safely resolved. He walked away feeling a little more confident in commanding a fire and a little more capable of handling his own stress.

Eventually, he even got to write this article.


Clark, Taylor. Nerve. Little, Brown and Company, 2011.

Ripley, Amanda. The Unthinkable. Crown Publishers, 2008.

Dunne, Thomas. Notes from the Fireground. McFarland & Company, 2020.

THOMAS DUNNE is a retired deputy chief and a 33-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York (FDNY). He has had extensive experience working in Mid-Manhattan and the Bronx and has been the incident commander at hundreds of fires in residential, commercial, and high-rise buildings. He has written numerous articles for Fire Engineering and lectures on a variety of fire service topics through his “Third Alarm Fire Training” seminars. He is the author of Notes from the Fireground, a memoir of the FDNY.

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