It’s All About the “Buzz”

Photo by Tony Greco.

By Nicola Davies

Firefighting is a profession to which many children aspire. So, most firefighters become firefighters after years of wanting to be one; they display that singular passion and drive that propels them to their inevitable profession. It isn’t a job you just fall into, like many sales representatives and accountants. In fact, many firefighters are volunteers; evidence that most, if not all, are in the profession for their love of it.

Subsequently, when these passionate professionals aren’t allowed to do their job for one reason or another, it can lead to great frustration. According to research from Rebecca Milner, a business psychology consultant working at the business consultancy firm Arup, active firefighters spend only about three percent of their time fighting fires. This research is based on Milner’s work with an airport fire department in the United Kingdom, but it still has implications across fire departments and across countries.


A Double-Edged Sword

Milner says, “Many firefighters in such a service have never responded to an emergency call.” And, although many may consider this a good thing (it points to better fire safety education and protocols that lead to fewer incidents), fire service professionals can feel frustrated at not being put to use more often. She continues, “I feel this is a double-edged sword, as it reflects the level of safety in the aviation industry, yet means firefighters experience an element of frustration in never having applied their skills and training in an emergency situation.”

This frustration can be worsened by bureaucracy and protocols surrounding cooperation between fire departments. In her research, Milner found that, “This frustration is a particular challenge when significant fires occur elsewhere in the city, as the firefighters are required to remain on site and are unable to support in the emergency situation.”


Selfless Compassion

So, what makes firefighters particularly prone to frustration when they are not allowed to do the job for which they signed up? After all, most professionals would be happy to take it easy at work and not have to deal with life-threatening emergencies. The answer may lie in the kind of people who take on this type of job and responsibility. The mixture of a selfless character and a fondness for an adrenaline rush, or “buzz,” may be what leaves them unfulfilled when not given the opportunity to engage in emergency situations.

Kenneth Willette, who manages the team at the U.S. National Fire Prevention Association, which supports the emergency responder community through standards, education, and advocacy for firefighter safety, thinks that firefighters sign up for the job for the “combination of providing a valued service in assisting others and the adrenaline of responding to emergencies.” The Willette, a 35-year fire service veteran who spent 13 years as a chief officer, added that the most important characteristic exhibited by firefighters is compassion, and that, “They truly care about the folks they assist.” He continued that firefighters also have an ability to “suppress their fears, for example claustrophobia, fear of blood, fear of heights.” These may not be natural talents, but rather skills acquired through years of training. Their training also builds in them, “The ability to trust their comrades and for them to be there for them. They cannot shrink from that obligation.”

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This sense of duty or “obligation” may be the one of the causes of frustration; trained firefighters often have to sit on the sidelines when they see their fellow professionals march into a life-threatening situation, and they are rendered hapless onlookers.

Although Willette concedes that, “I think anyone who misses the chance to do a job they love gets frustrated and firefighters are the same,” this inexperience is not a good indicator of the skills and abilities of the emergency responder. He assures, “That frustration doesn’t diminish their ability or skill. It helps them prepare and focus, and also learn from those other departments who might be busier.”

However, Willette also remarks that fire emergencies make up a very small percentage of the incidents to which these emergency professionals respond. “Today, there may be dozens of nonfire incidents that will be ones they always remember. Floods, tornados, snow storms, terrorist events, etcetera, all have a fire department response,” he says.


Dealing with Frustration

To remedy this feeling of frustration, Willette suggests, “It is something the individual must learn to manage.” However, both Willette and Milner know that fire departments and their associations can help firefighters better manage their expectations and lead them to a sense of fulfillment.

“Departments can help by providing realistic training, developing special skills teams like tech rescue and hazmat, and increased professional development opportunities,” says Willette. “Fighting a fire is one skill that must be maintained throughout one’s career, but technical rescue, emergency medical services, and other skills are just as needed.”

This idea of helping professionals add to their skill sets is also advocated for by Milner, who asks fire departments, “Might it be possible and appropriate for firefighters to carry out short-term assignments in differing stations; to allow them to experience a range of emergencies and learn from others based in these locations?” She also suggests that giving firefighters meaningful tasks and further training that enhances their skills, followed by meaningful review, is a great way to give firefighters a sense of fulfillment. “Such services might benefit from reviewing their performance metrics and outlining nonemergency behaviors that allow firefighters to stretch themselves, demonstrating their skills and levels of engagement through differing means,” she says. “This might be related to elements such as fitness, drill response, or maintenance.”

Ultimately, Willette is right in saying that, “Firefighting is an honorable profession, and while it has changed, the people who perform it still have the same characteristics, character, bravery, and trust.” Unfortunately, this sense of honor and urge to save lives and help people may lead to a lack of fulfilment. However, with Milner’s suggestion that fire services acknowledge the experience of such frustration and take active steps to combat it, that sense of fulfillment can be restored through other means.


Nicola Davies is a member of the British Psychological Society and the Division of Health Psychology. She has also been a member of the Department of Health Metrics Group. Davies has a Master’s with Commendation degree and a PhD. She has trained in the psychometrics of patient-reported outcome measures, systematic reviews, and critical appraisal at Oxford University. Davies is also  working as an evaluation and research coordinator for a large cancer charity, as well as providing policy-based health advice to various organisations. Her work covers topics include lifestyle, behaviour change, self-management, chronic conditions management, and quality of life. She writes regularly for a nursing journal, with articles varying from health-related topics to continued professional development guidance.

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