Satisfaction and Sacrifice: The Fire Fighter Life

Author: IAFF Staff

July 23, 2019

In the article, “Fire fighters are the Happiest Workers in America,” published July 17, 2019, BNN Bloomberg reported that fire fighters have the highest level of job satisfaction compared to other occupations. 

While the concepts of happiness and satisfaction are sometimes used interchangeably, behavioral health experts would argue these are two truly different experiences. Dr. Daniel Kahneman, Ph.D., a Nobel prize winner in the field of cognitive psychology, defines happiness as a momentary experience of joy. Satisfaction, he argues, is a long-term sense of contentment that comes from pursuing personally meaningful activities or goals. 

Given their high levels of job satisfaction, Kahneman would say fire fighters are doing something right. Instead of striving to be happy, we should strive for satisfaction.

Why Is Being a Fire Fighter Such a Satisfying Profession? 

When we ask fire fighters why they find the profession so satisfying, the range of responses include:
  • The ability to help someone in need
  • The opportunity to save a life
  • Having a second family in the firehouse
  • The bond of brotherhood and sisterhood
  • Respect and appreciation from strangers
  • Having an alternative to the nine-to-five schedule that allows for consecutive days off and time to be home for kids and family
  • A stable salary, health benefits and retirement security  

Is There Another Side to America’s Most Satisfying Occupation?

IAFF members already know that being a fire fighter is a deeply rewarding occupation. Simultaneously, the rewards and satisfaction of a job in the fire service can come at a high price. Despite the inherent dangers of running into a burning building or responding to a medical emergency, the real toll of the job is often an accumulation of invisible wounds that build up over the years, including:
  • A front row to devastation and human suffering
  • Long hours away from family and friends
  • Increased risk of cancer and respiratory disease
  • Line-of-duty deaths
  • Administrative issues
  • Post-traumatic stress and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Injury
  • Burnout
  • Strained marriages and divorce
  • Suicide

Restoring Balance

As a fire fighter, which side of the occupation resonates with you?  For many in the fire service, it’s both. Sometimes, the sacrifice you’ve made for the job outweighs the satisfaction. And while most fire fighters will experience post-traumatic stress during their career, all will struggle the same emotional, family and financial stressors experienced in the general population.

Without good self-care, daily stress can build up and contribute to serious behavioral health problems. If you are feeling chronically depleted, irritable, unable to enjoy life or regularly using alcohol to cope with the day, these are signs it’s time to consider professional help. PTSD, major depression, suicidal thoughts or substance abuse are not normal reactions to stress and warrant a response. With the right treatment and support, you can learn to manage stress, take care of yourself, and return to a satisfying career.

If you are considering seeking help, the IAFF Center of Excellence for Behavioral Health and Treatment and Recovery is a place to start. This comprehensive treatment center is designed exclusively for IAFF members struggling with behavioral health problems stemming from both occupational and personal stress.  

Call today to learn more about treatment with no obligation, or to participate in a free screening.

Rovella, David; McIntyre, Alexander. “Firefighters Are the Happiest Workers in America.” Bloomberg News, July 17, 2019. Accessed July 23, 2019. 

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