Interview Question: How do you deal with stress?

interview firefighter stressQ: How do you deal with stress?

The Strategy
This is a very common question and yet another chance for you to shine. It is no big surprise that firefighting/EMS is a very stressful profession, even after you nail the civil service exam by taking a firefighter practice test. Telling the panel something they already know will not set you apart. Further, many candidates say similar things. Typically candidates will list activities like exercise, prayer, meditation, or talking with a good friend. These are all good things to say but you will sound like all the other zombies the panel will interview. The candidate that will stand out is the candidate that understands what kills firefighters each and every year. Articulating strategies that combat the things that kill us will impress the panel. So what kills us? According to the United States Fire Administration there were 85 fatalities in 2010. The breakdown is below:

Nature of Fatal Injury:

  • 48 Heart Attack 56.4%
  • 20 Trauma 23.5%
  • 4 Asphyxiation 4.70%
  • 4 Other 4.70%
  • 3 Crushed 3.52%
  • 3 CVA 3.52%
  • 1 Burns 1.17%
  • 1 Heat Exhaustion 1.17%
  • 1 Unknown 1.17%

We die from heart attacks 56.4% of the time. Your answer needs to address how you understand this and how you plan to attack the risk factors associated with heart attack. Did I mention that stress is a risk factor? The following is a list of risk factors put out by the American Heart Association:

Heart attack risk factors

  • Smoking
  • High cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Physical inactivity
  • Obesity
  • Stress
  • Overuse of alcohol

Did you know that when we become stressed, adrenal glands secrete a hormone called Cortisol? Each and every time the tones sound our bodies spring into action and go into fight or flight. Our blood stream is flooded with Cortisol and we are ready to handle any emergency. In the short run the Cortisol does some important things. You get a quick burst of energy, heightened memory, increased immunity, low sensitivity to pain, and it helps to maintain body homeostasis. Sounds great, however what happens to the Cortisol if we get cancelled enroute and did not have a chance to go to work? Well the Cortisol stays in your system and it can have some damaging effects. I have listed them below:

Prolonged Cortisol effects:

  • Impaired cognitive functions
  • Suppressed thyroid function
  • Blood sugar imbalances
  • Decreased bone density
  • Decreased muscle tone
  • High blood pressure
  • Lower immunity
  • An increase in abdominal fat

I would add that there are studies out there that point to the negative effects of an excess of abdominal fat on the heart. It appears that our job could be killing us. That is, our job is killing us if we fail to understand the things we can do to lower the risk factors of heart attack. Our job is killing us if we fail to understand ways to counteract the effects of Cortisol in our systems. The candidate needs to have a plan to reduce the risk factors of heart attack and lesson the negative effects of Cortisol to ensure that they will have a long healthy career.

Example Response
Thank you. It is no surprise that this is a stressful profession. Stress is a part of life and we all manifest it in our own ways. One thing is common however and that is that stress has negative effects on our bodies and in particular our hearts. What I find interesting is that the number one killer of firefighters each and every year is heart attack. Also recent research is showing that firefighters have chronic high levels of Cortisol in their blood streams due to the nature of their jobs. Cortisol has many damaging effects to the body but in particular it increases the amount of belly fat that we accumulate. This is an ominous finding because an increase in belly fat has shown to increase the risk of heart attack. I have made it my mission to live a heart healthy life style. That means I exercise on a regular basis. I have a heart healthy diet except for an occasional Little Debbie snack, dang those things are addicting. I also have a great support group of friends and family that I can talk to if things are bothering me. If I do all these things they should add up to a long, healthy, and rewarding career. Thank you.