Canadian Firefighter Magazine

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Psychological PPE: The Sandwich Effect

March 31, 2021
By James R. Rychard

Fire organizations work hard to get the right cultural and professional fit when hiring firefighters. Unfortunately, there are times when those firefighters may turn out to be a wrong fit due to circumstances beyond an organization’s control. The problem arises when a firefighter feels like a square peg in a round hole. Since there are three types of stressors that can affect firefighters directly —organizational, operational and personal — I would like to propose a theory that may help to explain in part why firefighters may struggle mentally and emotionally. It’s called the Sandwich Effect and it looks deeper at the impact stressors from the top (organizational) and from the bottom (personal) that render firefighters even more vulnerable to the stressors of the job (operational).

The Holmes and Rahe stress scale is used to help identify the intensity of Life Change Units (personal stressors). This scale, even though it was created in the late 1960s, is still used by professional psychologists today. There is empirical evidence to support their findings. Firefighters would be wise to use this tool as a resource alongside professional counseling to help manage their personal stressors which are only one side of the mental health equation. The other side has to do with the organization.

Firefighters are exposed to the unpredictability of fire service emergencies; we cannot be 100 per cent prepared for everything. We train and we creatively reconfigure our drills to best simulate possible situations and scenarios but we can never fully prepare for the unknown. As powerful as this unpredictability can be, can there be another reason that makes the job difficult makes it difficult? In other words, can there be an issue behind the issue itself? In the book Fighting for Your Marriage, author Howard J. Markman speaks to the issues that underlie each issue/event inside a marriage. He along with his co-authors have identified a total of six issues, what they call deeper themes, that could be the true culprit of an issue. They are acceptance, caring, control and power; commitment, integrity and recognition. For example, a common issue such as sex/intimacy, according to the authors may very well be more about the lack of feeling “caring” or “acceptance” than the sex/intimacy itself. They propose by identifying and getting to the root of the issue (intimacy), the hidden issue (deeper theme) now becomes the focal point for discussion. For a firefighter who is struggling at work via being moved from station to station, or even moved off the platoon entirely in response to interpersonal dynamics of the crew (cliques), that firefighter will struggle, even if it is for a short period of time. Although it may appear that the issue is the firefighter, is it possible that there could be a deeper theme(s) at play? Colleagues might opine that firefighters need “thicker skin” – it is their problem. Is it really a fair assessment to say someone’s skin is thick or thin? Although it is a metaphor, I feel that the truth about having thick or thin armour has no bearing on the truth of the intensity of the stressors, especially when they come in too fast, with too much force or too often. Any sentient being would have a hard time trying to handle them.

Whether our firefighters have thick skin or not, a fire organization’s “organizational stressors” can be feel like a barrage. They can be the deeper themes of the mental and behavioural health issues of the firefighter.  

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“When we get the environment right, people have the capacity to do amazing things” is a famous line from leadership guru Simon Sinek. Given he is one of the most sought-after speakers in the world, perhaps he is on to something? Firefighters cannot predict what types of situations they will face in their career due to unpredictability, however, fire service leaders can make the organization more predictable. Since there is a way that firefighters can monitor their personal stressors qualitatively and quantitatively via the Holmes and Rahe stress scale, fire service leaders can also make a difference on the by making the environment psychologically safer.

If firefighters have to deal continuously and repeatedly and for some, for lengthy periods of time with personal stressors on the home-front (bottom part of the Sandwich), while also dealing with the organizational stressors (top part of the Sandwich) firefighters can be even more vulnerable to the unpredictability of operational stressors (the middle part of the Sandwich). And that “sandwiching” effect is the problem.

Let us together re-evaluate the equation. The organizational stressors of fire fighting are both predictable and controllable. Fire service leaders must choose to take full control of that one aspect of the Sandwich, by making it a priority. When they do, the organization becomes safer, and the unpredictability of the job much more manageable. 


In addition to being a firefighter and R2MR Instructor from the City of Burlington, Ont., James Rychard is an advocate for mental and behavioural health in the fire service, sitting on multiple association committees. He can be reached at jaymzr007@hotmail.com. 


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