Between Alarms: January 2019

Compassion fatigue often goes unrecognized
 Arjuna George
January 03, 2019
Written by Arjuna George
Compassion fatigue can lead to burnout, where firefighters feel low job satisfaction.
Compassion fatigue can lead to burnout, where firefighters feel low job satisfaction.
The world is full of organizations that continually put the well-being and safety of people above its own and the fire service definitely fits into this category when it comes to caring.  

This heavy responsibility can begin to weigh on responders, deteriorating their attitude for compassion towards people and life. This condition is called “compassion fatigue” and it is a prominent concern for our organizations and our society.

The term compassion fatigue was first coined by Dr. Charles Figley at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana. He described it as the “cost of caring” for others in emotional pain.

Our firefighters are seen as helpers in our communities, ready to respond at a moment’s notice with compassion and a caring attitude. This very act of helping makes us very vulnerable to owning pain of others and becoming numb to the trauma.

Over the years as a fire service we have made significant strides forward in the journey of destigmatizing mental health and post-traumatic stress disorder of responders, but compassion fatigue tends to goes unrecognized in many until it is too late.

The fire service consumes many of our lives and brings so much pride and sense of purpose. Many see the fire service as a calling, as it brings true meaning to life, but it can also devour the energy of our bodies if not managed, creating several health concerns.

We either know or may be someone that lives and breathes the fire service, but winds up burnt out and disgruntled. They put every waking hour into the fire service by volunteering for this and that, responding to all calls, and giving 24/7.  

As time passes, this type of responder may find it difficult to treat others around them with compassion and empathy. This form of compassion fatigue may ruin relationships, friendships and a cohesive workplace.   

As a solution, many recommend to find a balanced work life. But, how can you truly balance work and life when there will always be one that weighs more?

Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, prefers the motto, “Work-life harmony,” as a better viewpoint. He suggests the word “balance” tends to imply a strict trade-off. Work-life harmony identifies a more fluid and lenient mindset.

But how do you know when you are on the verge of burnout and compassion fatigue?

A key sign of compassion fatigue is the inability to turn work off. With today’s technology we are connected day and night. Every time our pager goes off after hours we are back on. Every time an email comes in we are back on. This lifestyle can begin to wear you down bit by bit and, many times without you even being aware of the impact. This always-on work ethic ensures that you never have true downtime.

I personally have noticed premature signs of compassion fatigue and burnout in myself. I love what the fire service stands for, what we do to protect our community, and I want to be the best I can be at it all, but it comes with a price – a price that can be life-changing. The price for many could be a growing dissatisfaction of the profession and a sense of resentment towards people and the service.

If you are in the fire service for even a short while, the effects of compassion fatigue will likely be recognized. Those that recognize any of the signs of compassion fatigue or more serious post-traumatic stress should address them before they transform into a more serious problem. Compassion fatigue can, over time, erode our physical and emotional well-being if we do not find methods of rejuvenation.

A good way to refuel and recharge your compassion batteries is self-care. Self-care may include other hobbies or a getaway. What I really enjoy is a social media blackout, where I go away and unplug from today’s fast-paced lifestyle. By finding your own specific method to unplug you will find better quality home life and work life, a true harmony of both.

If you have some of the following signs, you may be heading for compassion fatigue:
  • anger and criticism
  • increased isolation
  • fatigue and poor sleep routine
  • emotional instability
  • short temper
  • apathy towards people and work
  • unhealthy lifestyle choices and substance abuse
  • a sense of personal responsibility for emergency-scene outcomes
  • unexplained health issues
Over time, compassion fatigue can lead to burnout, where firefighters feel low job satisfaction. Adapting to the stress we witness from work exposures requires resiliency and tools such as mindfulness and self-awareness. These attributes provide elite athletes and combat soldiers the strength to de-stress. We, as firefighters, can learn from these and embrace new ways of dealing with trauma.  

Mindfulness and meditation should be viewed as tools for health, not as hocus pocus. You cannot argue that being in the now, present and aware, is a bad thing. It can only make you sharper and more agile to work.  

Everyone has daily life stressors that impact their mental health and sense of caring. Compound this with the duties of an emergency responder and the stress multiples.  

My philosophy at Salt Spring Island Fire Rescue is to foster and encourage the “happiest fire department.” This may sound corny to some, but if you consider what a happy work environment could change, it is worth considering.  

Happy is not necessarily having fun. The work we do is not always fun. But, if we come into it with a positive, happy attitude we will be better able to serve.  

By growing the culture of happiness, staff will be better at self-care, more engaged in training, more satisfied with their work, have happier home lives, and provide better customer service. If we nurture a happy life and workplace harmony, we will have the strength and tools to forge through the tough times and still have the strength to truly care for others and ourselves.  

To combat the negative side effects of continuous caring, consider re-examining your lifestyle. Do you take enough breaks to feel rejuvenated? Do you spend quality time outside of work? Do you eat healthy? Do you take care of your mind and body? All of these life-altering lifestyles will help better protect you from becoming fatigued and ultimately burning out.  

If you are a firefighter, you are part of something so important in today’s society. You have a true purpose and a desire to serve. Your health and well-being are paramount to be able to sustain the high level of care and compassion the fire service is known for. Between alarms, consider ways you can instill some basic self-care, how you can build resiliency to what life and the fire service throws our way. Our communities depend on us being healthy and response-ready, and this means our physical as well as our mental readiness.


Arjuna George is chief of Salt Spring Island Fire Rescue in B.C. He has served on the department since 1997. Contact Arjuna at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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