Emotion – The Response We Don’t Want

I have been quoted as saying “emotion has no place on the fireground” and I continue to believe that.  Every emergency scene is hazardous; that’s why we were called.  We must, as responders, understand how we can control our emotions to function appropriately.

So let’s just look at the physiological response to emotion.  When we face an external stimulus, we experience reaction to that stimulus.  Even the lowest forms of life, like probies, do.  (Only kidding).  Sensitivity is the ability of an organism to react to stimuli.  Richard Lazarus theorized that emotion is a disturbance that occurs in a set order; first, cognitive appraisal, then physiological changes, then action. Cognitive appraisal occurs when the individual assesses the event, cueing the emotion.  This reaction creates physiological changes in our body such as release of hormones that prepare us to do something in response.  Finally, we feel the body’s physiological response and we choose how to react.

I would speculate that we all understand this as the “fight or flight” phenomenon associated with fear.  So it shouldn’t be any surprise to you that just because you THINK you may not have a fear reaction to hazardous conditions or other influences, your body may very well be still reacting, but over a period of exposure to similar experiences, you have personally learned how to focus on managing those responses.

I have been at this for over thirty years.  I rarely see anything that gets me going.  But years ago, I was on our porch doing some work when my wife, who can be pretty stoic in her own right, calmly informed me that she thought the house might be on fire.  Emotion quickly overcame any rational response.  This wasn’t a stranger’s house on fire, this was MINE.  As a child, our home burned and my mother and brother came very close to becoming trapped in it.  Our family pets died in the fire.  I have learned to channel my response to fire through the rest of my life, but this was different.  This was my problem, not someone else’s.

While nothing came of it (washer belt- lots of smoke, no fire), I reacted to it.  Did I have all the facts? No. Was there a chance of losing my home?  Realistically, no.  I have been to dozens of similar events with no progression of the incident.  Was my life or my wife’s life in danger? No.  While my reaction to the event was not proportional to the facts, it was, as my body told me, a reaction to a deep seated memory of loss and years of undesired change.

When we personally experience a physiological reaction to an event, the changes may be detrimental to effective operation.  In fact, I’ll even go out on a limb here and say they DO produce changes to our body that hamper our ability to do the job.  As our body increases blood flow to the muscles and speeds up the metabolism, our blood pressure increases, as does our heart rate and respiratory effort.  We see a spike in blood glucose and fat release to supply the body with extra energy.  Our pupils dilate to help us see better, but we lose some of our peripheral vision.  We focus on the danger rather than on the facts that we can find, if we can only function long enough to realize, this might be a threat, but if we can use good practices, we can mitigate that threat.

Tomorrow we will be discussing emotion and how it plays into emergency scene decision making.  As always, there is a lot more to the subject matter than I can convey in a blog, and I ask you to look into the subject matter and if you have some questions, ask them.  But while I am sharing this information with you partly as a result of my education as a leader and partly through my experience as an officer, there are people who have made their life’s ambition studying the subject, and I defer any observations to them.  If you have a contrary view, I ask for you to share it.  It is in doing so that we can grow and learn.

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