Psychological Resilience to Stress in Firefighters: Rank as a Risk Factor

Presentation at Research Forum of the 2012 Bushfire CRC and AFAC Annual Conference.

Firefighting and rescue work can make extraordinary demands on cognitive and emotional resources during and following critical incidents. For incident management the implications of excessive demands include reduced executive function such as that needed for planning, problem solving and decision making. As incident management relies upon a clearly defined rank structure optimal performance will be determined by how resilient each level of the management structure, or rank, is to stress. As each rank carries a different level of responsibility the challenges of any single incident are likely to differ between ranks. As the hallmark of posttraumatic stress includes symptoms of anxiety, depression and dissociation, differential levels of symptoms between ranks should indicate areas of risk and resilience. In the current study the absence of symptoms are taken as evidence of resilience.

Firefighters (N=95) in the United Kingdom were grouped according to four ranks and tested for symptoms of posttraumatic stress using clinical measures of state- and trait-anxiety, depression and dissociation. Results showed that overall symptoms of state- and trait-anxiety and depression were in the normal range suggesting resilience at all ranks. However, scores of dissociation revealed that only the firefighter group scored in the normal range with junior and senior ranks meeting criteria for a number of psychiatric disorders. A follow-up test of autobiographical memory with senior officers found cognitive deficits in five out of 10 officers. Testing personnel according to their rank and level of responsibility revealed different levels of resilience to stress amongst incident managers. The implications of these findings for selection, promotion and critical incident stress management will be discussed.