4 wildfire

Stress Management: Using Operational Tactics During Down Time


In the wildland world, we have rules and guidelines, some that are inflexible and others with latitude. We have these for a reason, oftentimes creating the roadmap for our tactical operations, woven into the incident action plan. What if we were to take some of these principles into the realm of stress during the off season, and particularly during the holiday season? What if we weave the familiar operations protocol LCES –lookouts, communications, escape routes, safety zones – into the lives of our wildland fire personnel and their families as they navigate the off season, especially those who are laid off or taking vacation time?

We know down time can be stressful for anyone, but add traumatic stress experienced during the fire season, and you could have a recipe for disaster. The fire season tends to perpetuate our survival response, keeping our stress hormones in a continual cascade, or firestorm. With holidays come stress: finances; socializing; lots of food and booze; time off; and amped up emotions. Because many of us are already in a state of fight-flightfreeze-fawn, we can’t just turn off the spigot of stress hormones; stress hormones can easily get re-activated during this time, creating a firestorm of reactions and behaviors. Particularly for those who have been laid off or are taking time off, there is a lot of opportunity for reflection, and this can be scary. Perhaps we can use the LCES principles to help us better navigate the rigors of down time and the grief and sadness that might accompany it, particularly as we recognize that suicide attempts and completions, along with mental and emotional health conditions in the wildland fire world, are escalating.

I recently attended an EMS and mental health conference in New Mexico and learned that suicides in the first responder community are at an alltime high, with the worst months being September and January. There are so many factors, including down time, illness, relationship hardships, and financial troubles, that contribute to these staggering numbers. We also recognize that September is the time that most wildland folks are laid off, or during which the fire season comes to an abrupt halt. Our wildland folks have been on high alert for six-to-nine months, their stress hormones on a continual cascade, with little, if any time for recovery and rest, and come September they are forced to reintegrate into their families, and society, much like a combat veteran coming back from war.

How might we use LCES to provide support to our wildland personnel, and their families, who might be dealing with the effects of traumatic stress?


Look out for yourself, and one another. Recognize that many of us are hypervigilant, and constantly scanning our environment for danger. Being your own lookout first is important to recognize any people, events, and environments that may activate your stress levels. Trust your gut. Also, have others be your lookout, have your back, especially when you may not be


We know the importance of communication in a wildland incident; it’s imperative that we maintain good communication at all times to relay important information and safety concerns. Although we are encouraged to communicate important safety information, the minute we communicate our feelings we’re put on the crazy list. The stigma around mental and emotional health in the wildland world is still in need of improvement, despite all the work that continues to be done; that’s why it’s imperative to have the courage to communicate when you might be struggling emotionally, and mentally. Holding this stuff in will only make it worse, and this is where suicide ideations begin – in silence. Communicate to others what you need and what you feel, particularly if you are in crisis. Remember that NO is a complete sentence. Be willing to ask for help and receive it and communicate when you see someone else in distress; it might save a life.

Escape Routes

We all know the importance of having escape routes on wildland incidents, knowing that the escape routes will continue to change. One thing about post-traumatic stress and complex posttraumatic stress is the sense of not feeling safe. Because we are in a state of survival, in our brains and physiological bodies, we always need to find safety. It’s important to recognize the environments that may activate you, especially this time of year, and have an escape route when needed. Remember, your cognitive brain may not be functioning, and the escape route needs to be planned, and known, ahead of time. Sometimes, when people get laid off after a crazy wildland season, they don’t feel safe in their own families or homes, their work environments, not even in their own bodies. Having situational awareness that you may be feeling activated is first and foremost, followed by using your established escape route when you need to flee and find safety. When I was still working, and my C-PTS was debilitating, my escape route was the regional office parking lot. I would walk for hours because I didn’t feel safe in my own office.

Safety Zone

The safety zone is just what it implies in wildland – that place that we can safely ride out a wildland fire situation and be safe and out of harm’s way; this is critical when dealing with stress, especially when it becomes distress or crisis. Our traumatic brain is in a state of survival, and nothing, or no one, feels safe to us. Planning your safety zones ahead of time and communicating them to loved ones or a trusted person is important. It’s a safe place, where you can let your nervous system calm down, without any additional stress. Simple places are fine, such as a car, bedroom, bathroom, church, sanctuary, hospital, or even the woods where you can safely land. For years, my safety zone was my car. It was the one place I could always go to feel safe and be alone, without the stress of others. I would cry, scream, and beat the heck out of my car seats, but it always gave me a place to unwind. Again, my family and therapist always knew where to find me, so please be sure to communicate.

Remember that down time doesn’t have to stress you out, and you always have a choice in what is best for you; it’s a matter of having the courage to speak your truth and set healthy boundaries, to keep you safe and healthy. It’s also good to have a prevention plan in place, and critical to ensure that you know what to do, especially in the event of crisis. Left unaddressed, symptoms can become cumulative and lead to dysfunctional behaviors that can lead to tragedy. Suicides, substance abuse and divorce are at an all-time high within the first responder and veteran communities and can get worse over the dark winter season. Until we do a better job providing proactive measures to better help our wildland personnel deal with the stress of the job, these numbers will continue to rise. Simple measures can be taken by leaders, colleagues, families, and communities to better serve those who serve us. Knowing what to do, and what not to do, in the event of chaos and crisis, can make the difference between life and death, and health and illness

Resources For Traumatic Stress And Grief

The following resources are available to wildland fire personnel, first responders, veterans, or anyone in need of help in the United States. When dealing with crisis, trauma, and grief, reaching out and asking for help is often the hardest thing to do, yet it’s the most important.


This is especially relevant to anyone who is feeling hopeless or in despair, including having suicidal or homicidal thoughts, of hurting yourself or others. This is a crisis emergency that requires immediate support.



• SAFE CALL NOW CRISIS LINE: 1-877-230-6060

• FIRE/EMS HELPLINE: 1-888-731-3473

• COPLINE: 1-800-267-5463


Non-emergency support

These resources are for those needing support, but not a crisis or emergency. Sometimes, just talking to someone who understands makes the world of difference.

• COPLINE: 1-800-267-5463

• FIRE/EMS HELPLINE: 1-888-731-3473


Trauma therapists and coaches

• ANNE MARTIN, Master practitioner and integrative coach; Evergreen Coaching and Wellness: (former wildland firefighter): www.evergreencoachingandwellness.com

• BEQUI LIVINGSTON, (former wildland firefighter); trauma specialist and trauma safe somatic movement coach: www. bodysensewellness.org

• DANI SHEDDEN, mental health counselor: (former wildland firefighter); www.closethegapwellness.com

• THOMAS WURM: (former wildland firefighter): www. mountainmindtricks.com

• JENNIFER KINDERA, certified trauma recovery coach: www.jenniferkinderacoaching.com

Other resources

These resources provide ample support to first responders and veterans; a few of them provide inpatient programs for those dealing with substance abuse, addictions and post-traumatic stress disorder.


• SAFE CALL NOW USA: www.safecallnowusa.org

• BADGE 2 BADGE: www.badge2badge.com in a place to recognize danger. I remember when I was in the middle of my complex post-traumatic stress; I was a mess, and couldn’t recognize what was going on. It took my family and therapist to always be my lookouts, watching for my behaviors and symptoms, especially when things turned really dark during the holidays. They always had my back because I could not see the wildfire for the trees. When we are really stressed, our pre-frontal cortex, in our brain, where executive functioning and decision making take place, goes off line. We need others to be our lookouts when we can’t be our own lookout.

Bequi Livingston was the first woman recruited by the New Mexico-based Smokey Bear Hotshots for its elite wildland firefighting crew. She was the Regional Fire Operations Health and Safety Specialty for the U.S. Forest Service in Albuquerque, New Mexico. [email protected]