An Overview of the Stresses and Strains of Emergency Fire Appliance Driving (EFAD)

Firefighting is an inherently risky occupation – a fact accepted by the individuals who choose to become firefighters.  To counteract some of the risk, the fire service provides high quality training in the skills required to deal with incidents, and implements measures to ensure firefighters’ safety on the fire ground. But firefighting is also a stressful occupation. Research over a decade ago reported that trainee firefighters displayed high scores on a daily stress inventory (Roy and Steptoe, 1994) towards the end of their training period after which stress levels appeared to reduce. This finding was thought to be due to adaptation to the demands of the job.  A couple of years later, another study that assessed firefighter stress for a longer period revealed that stress levels actually increased over time (Paton and Smith, 1996).

Stress at work is the primary cause of ill-health and absenteeism in the UK today. Apart from the negative effect that stress can have on health, there are also major implications of the effect of stress on safety – especially when having to drive a fire appliance on a call. A recent study has found that firefighters felt that driving a fire appliance was stressful (Moran, 2001) and given that driving for work is the single largest cause of work-related accidents, there is major cause for concern. For firefighters, the stress of driving and the potential for being involved in a work-related road collision is even more pronounced when having to respond to “persons reported” incidents involving children (Werner et al., 1993) or having to recover bodies in major incidents (McCarroll et al., 1993).  Driving on the way to these traumatic events can cause the driver to ruminate about what they are might have to deal with on the scene and interfere with the primary task of driving and disrupt attention and hazard perception. There is also some evidence that firefighters respond through a sense of ‘noble cause’ to save life and limb and may be vulnerable to ‘red mist’ by focusing on getting to the scene. Instead the focus should be on driving safely. Firefighters have also expressed concern about the negative publicity that might occur as a result of a collision on the way to an incident (Moran, 2001) and this only adds to the general worry when driving an appliance.

Research undertaken by DriverMetrics® has shown that increased stress reactions may interfere with hazard monitoring skills, provoke more aggressive driving, increase propensity to take risks, and reduce a driver’s ability to cope with the stresses specific to driving an appliance under emergency conditions. But the extent to which stress might affect a firefighter’s driving performance depends on individual differences – everyone is different, and each person has a different way of evaluating an emergency situation.  For example, more hardy people appear to be less vulnerable to stress (Moran and Britton, 1994).  The way that an incident is evaluated as the call comes in and as the drive progresses towards the incident – has a major influence on the level of stress experienced.

Previous work seems to suggest that how incidents are evaluated and the way firefighters cope with stress at work is largely determined by the nature of the work environment for each particular fire service (Moran, 2001).  After doing the job for a while, firefighters appear to adopt similar evaluation and coping styles.  Indeed, many emergency service workers refer to their reactions to incidents – in terms of a job that must be done, and that they must get on with it. They seem to develop a kind of resilience in the face of the demands placed upon them.  This coping style has been referred to as a “trauma membrane” (Lindy, 1985) as enables firefighters to shield themselves from the stress of a traumatic incident for long enough to carry out their duties.

The danger here is that this particular coping strategy does not mean that the individuals remain unaffected by the stress of the incident in the longer term (Moran, 1998a). Anecdotally, researchers at Cranfield have observed a general reluctance amongst emergency service workers to admit to suffering with stress or seeking support. Not dealing appropriately with work-related stress can have serious consequences for firefighters, especially when driving to an incident. Telltale signs of stress include a change in sleep and eating patterns, increase in consumption of alcohol, irritability and appearing more withdrawn.

Much of the research on the general activities of firefighters around the world has concluded that fire services should provide training to help firefighters to predict and deal with stress (Paton, 1996).  However, there are not many reliable instruments to predict firefighter stress reactivity and coping to help fire services devise and direct high quality training (Paton et al., 2000).  Firefighter stress and coping is a very complex process affected by a varied range of factors, including the nature of the incident, organisational issues and self-appraisal, but the impact of stress on driving behaviour has been well documented and identifiable amongst emergency service drivers in studies undertaken by Lisa Dorn and her colleagues (e.g. Dorn and Brown, 2003; Dorn, 2005; Dorn and Barker, 2005; Gandolfi and Dorn, 2005). This work suggests that firefighter driver stress may compromise driver performance and the risks of driving an appliance must be managed according to Health and Safety law given employers duty of care to safeguard their employees.

DriverMetrics® carried out research in association with West Midlands Fire Service to produce a measure of fire appliance driver risk (EFADRI: Emergency Fire Appliance Driver Risk Index™) to meet the requirements of today’s evolving fire service.  The EFADRI is an online driver risk assessment profile that is designed to identify the beliefs and behaviours that place drivers at risk of involvement in a fire appliance collision. The EFADRI is developed by Dr Lisa Dorn and her colleagues and is based on the original Driver Stress Inventory Research on the DSI over the last 20 years has culminating in over 35 academic publications to verify its ability to predict driver behaviour. The EFADRI goes some way towards identifying a firefighters ability to cope with the demands of driving for work. A Cranfield Train the Trainers course has been designed for Driving Instructors to manage the risks highlighted by the EFADRI profile.

Request a demo access of the Emergency Fire Appliance Driver Risk Index™.