Insight gleaned from responder and family interviews points out the need to pay particular attention to cumulative stress. Cumulative stress results from a "pile up" of stress that occurs over time. It can originate from many different types of stressors, both on and off the job. Stressors may include administrative frustrations, high call volume, "routine" critical incidents (e.g., death or injury of children or victims known to the rescuer, including co-workers), family issues, monetary issues, and more.

It is important to remember the simple analogy that human beings and their coping mechanisms are like a rubber band. Everyone has a certain amount of stretching they can do. However, when stretched too far - the rubber band, like a responder, can "snap."

While most public safety personnel are resilient and cope well with day-to-day stress, the cumulative stress of the job, when combined with the added workload and trauma of a large-scale disaster or traumatic incident, can be overwhelming. Public safety workers and military personnel who suffer from cumulative stress may experience sudden and intense reactions, sometimes without knowing what triggered such reactions. If an individual has a particularly difficult time coping with cumulative stress, he or she may become unable to do his or her job, and may even have to retire.

Dealing with cumulative stress involves an on-going program of stress management, necessary to help prepare families and responders for potential critical incidents in the future. Some general tips on handling stress as it comes, and avoiding the cumulative stress "pile up," include the following:

Tips on Coping With Cumulative Stress
  • Debrief with coworkers or counselors after each critical incident.
  • Use positive coping strategies that you are comfortable with.
  • Talk to coworkers, trusted friends or family members about your experiences.
  • Do something that helps you relax, such as golfing, hiking, yoga, listening to music, working out, taking a vacation, etc.
  • Practice some relaxation techniques.
  • Exercise routinely to "work off" some of the stress.
  • Take some time to think about what you've been through.
  • Become aware of any "triggers" that bring up reactions.
  • Identify sources of ongoing stress and work on lessening impacts from those stressors.
  • Monitor any on-going reactions, and seek help if needed.