Best Practices for Managing First Responder Stress

Fire Service Survey Says We are Stressed Out and Over-Worked.

Yet, we love what we do....

According to the recent 2023 What Firefighters Want Survey  conducted by, 64% of respondents reported high levels of work-related stress, with 46% considering leaving their current department and 42% contemplating leaving the fire service altogether. Despite these challenges, 95% of respondents still felt positive about their contributions as members of the organization.

The traditional ethos of the fire service has always prioritized service before self. However, the negative stress factors faced by firefighters are starting to take a toll. Increasing workloads coupled with a lack of sufficient personnel have contributed to higher stress levels and potential burnout. This is evidenced by the significant number of firefighters considering leaving their departments or even exiting the profession entirely (43%).

firefighter stress data and best practices for managing stress

Given these alarming statistics and potential outcomes, it is crucial for any member of the fire service to understand the importance of recognizing and reducing stress whenever possible. We all need to place a major emphasis on personal well-being and prioritize stress management. A failure to address positive stress management will result in health issues, a decline in performance, unhealthy relationships, and a decrease in job satisfaction.  

Because stress is so prevalent, it has also been a “hot” topic in the fire service and is often talked about.  Maybe we talk about it too much?  

What we really need to do is harbor positive ways to combat it and encourage those around us to do the same.   As with any skill, stress management and self-care can and will get better with practice.  The key is to focus on some small actions and habits that will produce a great result.  

Here are the best ways for firefighters to manage stress:  

firefighter crew workout to relieve stress. Exercise to help combat firefighter stress.


Exercise plays a crucial role in combating first responder stress and promoting mental well-being. First and foremost, physical activity is a powerful stress reliever. Engaging in regular exercise releases endorphins, the body's natural mood elevators, which can help alleviate the symptoms of stress and anxiety. For us as firefighters, EMTs, and paramedics, who often encounter high-stress situations, this natural mood boost can be exponentially beneficial. 

Furthermore, exercise provides an essential outlet for pent-up emotions, tensions, and emotional traumas we experience as first responders.   Regular physical activity allows us to channel stress and emotions in a healthy and constructive way.  In addition to its immediate stress-relieving benefits, exercise contributes to long-term resilience and mental health. Regular physical activity can enhance overall physical health, boost immune function, and improve sleep quality, all of which are essential components of managing stress. It can also provide a sense of routine and discipline, which can be particularly valuable for first responders dealing with irregular work schedules. 

Overall, exercise serves as a potent tool in the arsenal against first responder stress, offering immediate relief, emotional release, and long-term resilience to cope with the unique challenges they face in their line of duty.   Exercise does not have to be ultra-intense or long in duration. Consistent bouts of 20-30 minutes of exercise and movement can greatly improve health and resilience.  

Aim for at least 30 minutes of exercise 3x per week.

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Take a breath using the 5 +1 = 6 equation.

Taking a deep breath can help control stress by activating the body's relaxation response. When we are stressed, our sympathetic nervous system becomes activated, leading to increased heart rate, shallow breathing, and a release of stress hormones like cortisol. However, taking a deep breath triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes a sense of calm and relaxation.

Deep breathing increases oxygen intake and slows down the heart rate, signaling to the body that it is safe and there is no immediate threat. This helps to counteract the physiological effects of stress and restore a sense of balance.

In addition to its physiological benefits, deep breathing also has a psychological impact. Focusing on the breath can redirect attention away from stressful thoughts and bring awareness to the present moment. This mindfulness practice allows individuals to detach from stressors and cultivate a calmer mental state.

Overall, taking deep breaths can promote relaxation, reduce anxiety, lower blood pressure, and improve overall well-being in moments of stress or overwhelm. It is a simple yet effective technique that can be practiced anywhere at any time for immediate stress relief.

Don’t believe me? Try it now. 


Breathe in through the nose for 5 seconds, hold for 1 second, and slowly exhale for 6 seconds.  Combining 4 or 5 or this pattern can do wonders for your health.  Do it right now and anytime you feel tired and stressed.  

If you do nothing more than this simple exercise (5 + 1 = 6) a couple of times a week you become tense, and your sense of well-being and health will begin to change for the better.


The simple habit of drinking more water can help manage stress in several ways:

  • Improves Cognitive Function: Dehydration can impair cognitive function and increase stress levels. By staying properly hydrated, the brain can function optimally, leading to improved focus, concentration, and decision-making abilities. This can help reduce stress by allowing individuals to better handle challenging situations.


  • Enhances Mood and Energy: Dehydration can contribute to fatigue and low energy levels, which can exacerbate feelings of stress and make it harder to cope with stressors. Drinking enough water throughout the day helps maintain proper hydration, increasing energy levels and promoting a more positive mood. 


  • Boosts Physical Resilience: Stress can take a toll on the body, both mentally and physically. Adequate hydration supports overall physical health by keeping the body's systems functioning properly. This includes regulating body temperature, lubricating joints, aiding in digestion, and facilitating nutrient absorption - all of which contribute to physical resilience against the negative effects of stress.

It is important for individuals to stay mindful of their hydration levels and make a conscious effort to drink enough water throughout the day as part of their overall stress management strategy.  

First responders should aim to drink at least half of bodyweight in ounces of water a day.  For a 170-pound firefighter, that is around 85 ounces a day.  

hydrate to improve firefighter performance and manage stress

Use the Jedi Mind Trick

The Jedi mind trick, as popularized in the Star Wars films, is a fictional ability used by Jedi Knights to influence the thoughts and actions of others. It involves using persuasive techniques, combined with a strong force of will and mental focus, to manipulate someone's perception or behavior.  In the movies, a Jedi would use phrases like "These aren't the droids you're looking for" while making eye contact with their target to implant a suggestion or command into their mind. 

I believe this technique can be used in the fire service too.  We all sit at sit around the table and talk about the negatives of the department and pile on story after story of the inefficiencies and wrongdoings.  This is in our nature and once it starts it can be difficult to stop.   And, these negative thoughts can compound and add to the stress we are trying to vent.   

At these moments try to take a deep breath (see above) and change the perspective of the conversation by stating something positive about the job, crew, or environment (like a Jedi Mind trick… kind of).

A simple positive statement can relieve stress by shifting our mindset and focusing on more optimistic thoughts. When we are stressed, our minds tend to magnify negative aspects and create a cycle of worrisome or anxious thoughts. By introducing a positive statement, we interrupt this negative spiral and bring our attention to something uplifting and hopeful.

To effectively use positive statements for stress relief, it is important to personalize them to resonate with the needs and values of the crew.  Give it a try!


As first responders, we often face circumstances beyond our control. It's natural to vent about mandatory overtime and poor leadership as a way of coping. However, it's important to reach a point where we take personal responsibility for how we respond to these challenges. 

Let's commit to incorporating exercise into our daily routine, taking deep breaths throughout the day, staying hydrated, and cultivating a positive mindset filled with gratitude. By consistently practicing these simple actions, we can truly optimize our lives, improve our health, and excel in our careers as first responders.



Stay vigilant in your journey to be "better."

ZAM -Aaron Zamzow first responder fitness

Aaron Zamzow

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