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What We Know About Responder Resilience

Dr. Jim Guy


When I talk about our work with emergency first responders, I often get asked, “How do they keep going?”

While it’s true that some responders are exceptionally suited for this demanding work, most are normal people like you and me.  Responders who thrive long-term develop the discipline of effective “self-care” to maintain their resilience.

To learn more, we partnered with the Ahmanson Foundation to study and support emergency first responders in L.A. County. As part of our research, we asked hundreds of responders to complete our Headington Institute Resilience Inventory (HIRI). The results have taught us a lot about what makes a successful and healthy life-long responder.

Emergency responders who maintain their well-being throughout their careers have four factors in common.  They have all developed the following:

  • Social support: They regularly connect with friends and family.
  • Self-efficacy: They are competent and confident in their skills and abilities.
  • Meaning and purpose: They have a strong sense of mission and calling.
  • Physical fitness: They regularly exercise and maintain their health.

Individuals who successfully integrate these four factors tend to be much more resilient in response to the trauma they face. Of the responders we’ve supported, about 65% of the emergency responders are maintaining their resilience by working on these four factors.

The remaining third, those who have not successfully developed the four resilience factors, tend to struggle when one or more of the following happen:

  • Moral injury: Tragic critical incidents weaken the sense of hope, purpose, and spiritual empowerment necessary to help victims of disasters and emergencies.
  • Physical injury: Repeated exposure to toxins, physical stress, accidents, and danger reduces fitness, comfort, and overall wellbeing.
  • Emotional injury: Acute traumatic stress and chronic emotional stress increase the possibility of anxiety, depression, and PTSD.

Because fitness for duty is always a concern among emergency responders, those unable to maintain their resilience may find themselves coping in secret with substance abuse, greater marital problems, sleep disturbance, or even suicidal thoughts.  Without the opportunity to receive professional help, these problems compound their initial injury and can lead to then leaving their careers in public service, a sad outcome for everyone involved.

Future blog posts on sleep, exercise, and team resilience will discuss additional ways to build your personal capacity in order to thrive in your work.  In the meantime, here are a couple of quick tips:

  • Sleep: Your brain really does need 7-8 hours of sleep daily.
  • Exercise: Frequency is more important than intensity – daily is best.
  • Team resilience: Group dysfunction can undermine personal wellbeing. Think about what you can do to encourage your team to address systemic issues.

If you are a responder looking for more ideas on how to build your resilience, take a look at our website or email me at jguy@headington-institute.org. We’re proud members of your support team.

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