Stress, Cortisol Complicate Fire Service Work

Reblogged from :

Understanding your body’s physiological responses means understanding that the effects of firefighting can take their toll as soon as the alarm sounds. (Lloyd Mitchell photo)

Dan DeGryse, BA, BS, CEAP, CADC, LAP/C, Battalion Chief, Chicago Fire Department; Director, Rosecrance Florian ProgramPublished Friday, February 20, 2015

As firefighters, we go from 0 to 60 mph in a matter of seconds when we hear the bell ring at the fire station.

We race to gear up and to process the information about where we’re headed. But we don’t prepare our bodies for that rush of adrenaline. Given the unexpected nature of the work, I’m not sure how we would or could. It’s not as easy as warming up or stretching before exercising.

Our bodies release adrenaline and cortisol when they’re stressed. Cortisol is a stress hormone – actually, a steroid hormone. (I call it a hormone on steroids.) It’s great to get you going, but is it healthy for our hearts to race 10 to 15 times a day? That’s 30,000 instances of a racing heart just on the job alone if you do the math over a 30-year career.

I started researching cortisol – how it affects the immune system, the digestive tract, concentration, etc. – a few years ago after studying the suicide rate within the Chicago Fire Department. I looked at other main causes of death, and heart disease topped the list, as it does nationally. Diet, exercise, smoking and heredity are some of the main risk factors for heart disease, but excessive stress can contribute to those risks.

What if I get that injection of cortisol and my heart goes through the roof, but then I find out it’s a false alarm? Now what? How do I get my heart rate back to normal, and where do the adrenaline and cortisol go? My understanding is they get absorbed back into the body, and that made me wonder if we truly know the effects of what happens when that occurs.

When I hear the firehouse bell go off, it’s like a jolt. Even though it may not be for me, I can still feel my heart race a bit, and I have to sit there and breathe, relax and try to calm down. That’s just an attempt to get my body back to its neutral state; that doesn’t reduce the amount of adrenaline and cortisol that were just released in my body.

Former U.S. Fire Administrator Olin Green wrote in 1991 about the dangers of stress within the fire service. But after more than 25 years on the job, I hadn’t heard anything about that until I started researching the topic. I never looked at stress as a possible hindrance until now. And I don’t want the next 25 years to pass without addressing it.

For many years, we’ve talked about improving personal protective equipment: bunker gear, helmets, self-contained breathing apparatuses, hoods, gloves and boots. We’ve also found out that the heat buildup inside of our bodies and the skin exposure to carcinogens are as dangerous as us breathing in something toxic.

I’m finding out that adrenaline and cortisol, which are naturally occurring and necessary for us when in our fight-or-flight mode, are potentially hurting us from the inside out.

The cortisol in our bodies is typically highest in the morning to help get us going. The level of cortisol lowers throughout the day in sync with our circadian rhythm. The level is lowest – half of the morning level – at night. But if we’re constantly stressed by the firehouse alarms or during runs, what are the effects of the continually higher levels of cortisol on our minds and bodies?

Although there is research available on this subject for military and police personnel, I haven’t found any related to the fire service. My hope is that further research on the topic geared toward the fire service will help spread awareness about the physiological effects of stress we experience throughout our careers.

For example, when I look at my own physiological responses regarding this issue, I can tell you that when I come home after a long shift and being up most of the night, I feel like I’m shaking from the inside out. I try to meditate before I go to sleep so I don’t have that feeling.

Another example of the physiological effects of cortisol: I spoke to a coworker who has 27 years on the job, and he told me he wakes up pretty much every night at 1 a.m. He wrestles around, gets up to walk around and then tries to go back to bed. He had a sleep study, and the technicians figured out that he typically doesn’t have one minute of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which helps give us more energy during the day. Cortisol levels also fluctuate during sleep, according to the National Sleep Foundation.

Some people take medication to help them sleep, while others might have a drink before bed. Self-medication can quickly progress to addiction. We know that all too well.

That’s part of the reason why I split my time between work as a battalion chief with the Chicago Fire Department and Rosecrance, a leading provider of addiction and mental health treatment services in Rockford, Illinois. In fall 2014, I worked with Rosecrance to help launch the Florian Program, which is the first program in the country dedicated to treating fire service personnel with an eight-bed coed inpatient unit.

That program aims to help firefighters and paramedics with serious substance abuse and mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression. Knowing what we know now about cortisol’s overall effects on our long-term well-being, we are incorporating its significance into our program.

Florian clients will have their cortisol levels tested initially when they check in for treatment. Dr. Raymond Garcia, medical director at the Rosecrance Harrison Campus, where the Florian Program is located, will evaluate those tests to check for abnormalities and to see if there’s a need to incorporate techniques for clients on how to de-stress. Clients whose cortisol levels have been identified as abnormal will be retested at the end of treatment to evaluate progress and treatment success.

We can educate them about stress and cortisol and give them tips on what to do when they return to their jobs, because they’ll face the same triggers and traumas as they did before treatment.

Research has shown that low-intensity exercises, yoga, meditation, breathing techniques and acupuncture can help reduce cortisol release in the body. Avoiding sugar and caffeine is best after a jolt of cortisol. Eat fruit high in vitamin C and food high in protein (eggs, lean meat), zinc (seafood) and magnesium (spinach), and avoid high-carbohydrate foods and sugary desserts.

And what if there’s a way to change the tones in the firehouse? We don’t have all the answers yet. Until we do, let’s research and study the issue first.

Because doing nothing for the next 25 years is unacceptable.

The Four Dimensions of Boxing

I don’t remember where I found this article about boxing. But I found this to be very interesting and wanted to post it up here for anyone to read. I can relate to how boxing is facing your fears through firefighting. But I can also relate it to life and standing up and being in charge of your life despite your own fears.

The Four Dimensions of Boxing

I had an opportunity to go out for drinks and sat with a retired boxer. He learned to box in the Army and when he left he entered the amature ring. I was fascinated with his stories and he was more than happy to show me some moves but more important , teach me his philosophy.

Boxing is known as the Sweet Science.  Boxing is more than a sport, and is more about learning how to face personal fears than about hitting and getting hit.

Boxing for Everyone is about getting in shape.  A Boxing Workout begins with Jumping Rope and progresses with different kinds of jumping drills, ab and core work, Shadowboxing and the most favorite, punching a Heavy Bag. It is a great all body, cardio workout, AND you go through the motions and learn all boxing fundamentals.

Boxing has a dialogue learned when learning how to Spar.  When you don headgear and a mouthpiece, raise your gloves to cover your face, you will enter the ring of facing your fears.  Learning to Invite the punch instead of  freezing or fleeing is very powerful.

Living a boxer’s lifestyle is about applying what you have learned in the gym to everyday life.  We are constantly moving and interacting, even when sitting.  Through simple awareness drills, you can come to live life in a more engaged sense of mental, physical and emotional union.

Boxing is all about Stories; everyone has stories; when we tell the stories differently we are changed; when we follow the stories we fill in our own Map with newly found experience.

Fire Service Warrior website.

The Fire Service Warrior website is pretty cool and I just wanted to share what I found . They cover my two favorite topics; weight training and firefighting.


Fire Service Warrior Ethos Statment

Firefighter Fitness, It’s a must!

Every year an average of 100 firefighters die while on duty and half of these deaths are from some type of heart failure. Because the forces that work against a firefighter can be extremely brutal and labor intensive our physical fitness has to be at its best.

To start the new year I wanted to post pics of firefighters training . If you are a new guy then you know all about this and probably get a chill when you see it again! But remember, the best way to stay in shape for the rest of your career is to stay fit right from the start. Consider yourself at a great advantage. You just came out of training, you’re young, keep it up and don’t ever quit! If you’re an older guy and you have been slackin , well maybe these photos will inspire you to get back into shape.

Start today , waste not a moment!





Firefighter Fitness- The First Step For The Rest Of Your Career

When you’re young and you decide that one day you want to become a fireman , it seems almost like a dream. It’s right there with all the wanna be astronauts, jet pilots, police officers,doctors etc…… I had the opportunity to apply for the job at 25 years old. I say opportunity because the city had to actually be hiring. Once you fill out the application then the long wait begins. How long? Well, it varies. For me and the rest of the recruit class it was a long 5 years before they actually put us on the job. But before this we had to pass a written and physical test that takes place within a year after your application is submitted.  First you take the written test and out of something like 600 applicants only 176 moved on to the physical portion of the testing process. Then there is a lull. Those who did well on the written and moved on spend this time getting in the best shape that they can be in. Preparing for the hardest 2 minutes of their lives.

I trained regularly to maintain some decent strength but emphasized cardio fitness because of the nature of the physical fitness test that they administer. The test is an obstacle course. You move through the course wearing a weight vest and perform various tasks. Anyone who gets around the 2 minute mark has a good time.My preparation was to wear my own weight vest and run the bleachers at the local high school track. I worked out at the gym as well. I used a stair climber at the gym because there is a portion of the test that requires you to climb 10 flights of stairs wearing the 40 lb weight vets while also carrying a pack that is long and awkward. The pack adds on another 50 lb.

I was younger and less experienced with fitness training and didn’t take advantage of the weights like I should have. I thought I was going to “get bulky and slow down”. I did light squats once a week and mostly incline bench press.

The day of the physical is was cold as shit out and I showed up very early and started to warm up. I watched as other candidates took their marks and went through the gauntlet. I remember this one guy was wearing a hat. No one asked him to take it off, it wasn’t bothering anybody. But right in the middle of the course (this guy was flying too) he knocked his hat off. He actually stopped, turned around and went back to get it! The monitor who was timing him was yelling “forget the hat!” over and over. This guy insisted he go back for it and not only that but put it back on and adjusted it accordingly!! I was like WTF is this dude doing.

Then I remember there was this guy that was jacked to high heaven . He was muscular in a way that I was envious of. I was gonna go ask him what his routine and diet looked like because that was when I started to really get more serious about fitness . But after I saw him fail miserably on the 10 flights of stairs ( as in he quit right in the middle and feel to his knees) I said “I aint askin him shit.” I saw him out front later when I was leaving, EMT were giving him oxygen!

Then I remember a guy who went right before me. He went through the course like lightning and when he got to the end guys were calling him a superstar. He collapsed to his knees too. Then he started puking in a garbage can. He pretty much had the fastest time in the whole field. He is on the job today.

When I saw him go I said “Thats the guy I wanna be like!” He was n’t jacked at all but he was thin and in good shape.

I ran like the wind and came in just a few seconds behind that guy and we both wound up in recruit class together.

5 years in limbo

People ask me what did I do for those 5 years not knowing if I will ever even get the job? My answer was always the same. “kept living my life, staying fit and out of trouble”.

All in all no one knew it would take 5 years so to me it always felt like any day now. By the time I did get hired I had learned more about fitness and was weightlifting regularly. I managed to bulk up a little and still maintain good cardio conditioning. I learned to eat healthier as well. I developed good habits over these years that have now served as a strong foundation to my career. This job demands physical performance. You want to be able to function well during a fire and after. You want to be able to wake up the next day and feel good and not suffer from any injuries due to weakness and lack of mobility.

If you are thinking of getting into the fire service consider what I am telling you. Stay fit because it will set the tone for your career and your life.

Firemans Carry, A Military Exercise

I did a post a while ago about the mechanics of the firemans carry and the need for proper fitness in order to execute it. One detail that I left out in that post was that the firemans carry despite its name is really unpractical to do on the fireground. The reason why is because a firefighter wears their air tank on their back and it would get in the way. More importantly you never want to raise to your feet and bring a victim closer to the superheated gases that are above. Firefighting is done crawling around and carrying a victim is done as low as possible.

But the firemans carry is a very useful carry when on the battlefield and a solder needs to be able to lift and carry a full grown man who is possibly heavier than they are while also carrying their weapon and gear. They need to be able to go for some distance and have sure footing along the way while all along they are sizing up the area around them and looking for danger…….. that’s a lot! But the trooper would have to get rid of his backpack because that would hinder the carry and of course as long as bullets aren’t flying around.

When approaching a working fire I witnessed a new firefighter being handed a civilian woman from a first floor window. The new guy was wide eyed as the woman slid into his arms. His captain shouted to quickly bring the woman to EMS who was staged across the street. He carried her in his arms like a baby. He would never have been able to get her body onto his back because of the tank. That’s just the way it is.

Hardcore Occupations

This window cleaner is one goddamn HARDCORE dude……….

A window washer is rescued after his scaffold got stuck on the 40th floor of 1177 6th ave.

…..And so are the guy’s who will come get them when there is a problem!

North Naples firefighter Javier Spirgatis scales down the Marbella condominium in a rescue training exercise.

Call It A Hot Seat…..

March 26, 2011 – Elizabeth FD responded to 324 Martin Road in Union for a fire in a occupied 2½ story wood frame that would eventually go to three alarms. In this photo are the members of Elizabeth Ladder Co. 1 operating on the roof.


I wasn’t aware that this photo existed until now. This is myself and my partner quickly exiting a roof after we cut a nice vertical ventilation hole in it. We were providing mutual aid to a nearby town. I’m the one coping a squat while waiting for my partner to get down the ladder. I forgot about this fire for some reason but as soon as I saw the photo it all came back. Taking the lid off this fire produced massive flames that were over our heads. We did our job and got off as soon as we saw that.



To the Lost….Hero’s Forever

A salute to the hardcore. The country reacts to the greatest loss of firefighters in the line of duty since 9/11. They were 19 highly skilled professionals that had seen and survived some of the harshest conditions a person can face. They perished on June 28th, 2013 while battling the Yarnell Hill Wildfire – about 60 miles northwest of Phoenix.

Andrew Ashcraft 29

Robert Caldwell 23

Travis Carter 31

Dustin Deford 24

Christopher MacKenzie 30

Fire Superintendent , Eric Marsh 43

Grant McKee 21

Sean Misner 26

Scott Norris 28

Wade Parker 22

John Percin 24

Anthony Rose 23

Jesse Steed 36

Joe Thurston 32

Travis Turbyfill 27

William Warneke 25

Clayton Whittted 28

Kevin Woyjeck 21

Garret Zuppiger 27

To The Lost…..from

July 9, 2013 by sarahallegra

It was last Tuesday, July 2nd, that I found out about the tragic deaths of the nineteen firefighters in Arizona a few days earlier.  At the same time, I discovered my childhood friend, Andrew Ashcraft, was one of those lost.   I hadn’t yet even heard about the tragic death of the nineteen firefighters in Arizona.  Andrew was a childhood friend of mine.  It took a while to sink in.  Andrew, who I had played with for years, was gone.

Not only Andrew, but eighteen others of Arizona’s finest firefighters were lost.   They were called the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew; essentially the Navy Seals of the fire world.  They were trained to go into the deadliest, most dire situations and kick the fire’s ass.  They went in to make a fuel break for the devastating forest fire when the wind changed and trapped them.  There was no escape………… Read More