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Public safety ‘pit stops’: It’s critical to take breaks to avoid burnout

Strategies for first responders to manage stress during busy shifts


Many first responders start their shift and, with an increasing number of calls, can barely get a break or downtime. There simply isn’t time for the public safety “pit stop.”

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I love the IndyCar racing series. Watching how the crew chiefs apply so much power to these machines, plus the skilled drivers who harness all that horsepower, is amazing. It takes a lot of training to become an accomplished crew chief and racer.

The rigorous training and the races themselves are both taxing and stressful to the car and the driver. They are sometimes on the track for hours on end. But that’s what makes these drivers professionals.

In fact, I think there’s a lot in common between a finely tuned IndyCar driver and an effective first responder, particularly when it comes to managing stress. Hear me out.

Burnout and breaks

While on the track, drivers make occasional pit stops for a change of tires, fuel, mechanical repairs due to stress and fatigue, or other adjustments so they can get back on the track and run effectively without burning out their motors, blowing out a tire, stressing the body or chassis too much, not to mention it gives the driver a rest. Pit stops last mere seconds; however, without these quick stops, you can expect catastrophic damage or injury to the car and driver.

There is little room for error in the maintenance of an IndyCar. And just as pit stops ensure the long-term health of the vehicle, first responders must take time throughout their busy shifts to ensure their own long-term viability.

Today’s first responders are responding on more calls involving trauma and disasters – calls that can lead to significant stress for all involved. Further, many first responders start their shift and, with an increasing number of calls, can barely get a break or downtime. There simply isn’t time for the public safety “pit stop.”

What used to occur primarily in large metropolitan fire departments, we are now seeing agencies both big and small as well as paid and volunteer. Public safety burnout is real. It is almost like a separate pandemic in and of itself, with little relief in sight. Fortunately, there are strategies first responders can employee to help manage their stress.

Managing stress

In his book “Mindful Responder,” Crawford Coates writes about the importance of short and long interval rest regimens and how they build off of one another to enhance resilience. Coates explains that it’s effective to build little habits into your routine throughout the day, centering on the breath at stoplights, for example, or pausing after a call to reconnect with “being” rather than “doing.” These routine habits buttress more formalized and concerted mindfulness practices, such as morning meditation or prayer.

Psychologist and CEO of Cordico, Dr. David Black, explains the importance of self-care: “It’s critical for first responders to take care of themselves during the COVID-19 crisis. Our heroes on the front lines are always seeking to help others, but it’s more important than ever that they also prioritize taking care of themselves during this very demanding time.”

Dr. Black shares the following suggestions to alleviate stress among first responders and their families:

  • Follow COVID-19 safety best practices.
  • Maintain healthy routines: Get exercise, eat well and prioritize sleep.
  • Maintain supportive social relationships – distance physically rather than socially.
  • Prioritize taking care of your family and ensuring their cohesion, health, wellness and safety.
  • Avoid falling into negative patterns of behavior, such as drinking too much alcohol, overeating, skipping out on sleep or obsessively consuming news.
  • Be proactive and purposeful so that your habits and routines embody your core values and ideals (e.g., family, health and wellness, faith, safety, service), rather than reactive responses to stressful circumstances (i.e., alcohol, junk food, excessive screen-time, social isolation).
  • Emphasize your mindfulness practice or create one if you haven’t yet done so.

Another valuable tool is deep breathing. When you feel stress or anxiety building or you feel overwhelmed, take some deep breaths and let those feelings pass. Breathing deeply is typically calming. Coates notes, however, that for some people, too much deep breathing can cause panic. “For some people, I have found,” he says, “deep breathing is something like hyperventilation, with a sense of lightheadedness that causes anxiousness. For these people, simply counting or paying attention to breath might be a better option.”

These are skills that we must cultivate over time, Coates says: “You need to get a sense of what works for you and start developing a toolkit for finding balance and equanimity under peaceful conditions, so that when the going gets tough, you have skills to fall back on to get through it. That’s the definition of resilience.”

Make the time

Though these techniques can serve as a public safety “pit stop,” you still have to take time to completely disengage and rest. Like the race car and its driver do, take the time and tear down the stress and fatigue of running so many calls. You may even need to call in a licensed therapist or psychologist to be part of your “pit crew” so you can effectively recharge yourself from burnout.

Editor’s note: How do you manage stress and find time for breaks during busy shifts? Share in the comments below.

Sam DiGiovanna is a 35-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, California. DiGiovanna also serves as executive vice president of fire operations for Cordico, which provides access to critical mental health information and resources to help those on the front lines best take care of themselves and ensure they are best prepared to serve others. Cordico was acquired by Lexipol in 2020.