Men and women are innately different in their genetic makeups and this plays a role on how they respond to stress differently. In addition to their difference in dealing with stress, they are likely to deal with certain response calls with a different emotional drive. While they are trained to respond in certain ways to certain situations, the responses which are left ambiguous and call for more on the spot decision making are going to be interpreted in different ways. So how do men and women respond differently to the situations that many first responders face? To take a closer look at this, I have interviewed two first responders on how they cope with the job.
Heather was an EMT for ten years and while she is currently a nurse is still a registered with the EMS, She has also spent a few years in dispatch. Scottie has been an EMT for the past five years and has spent twenty-five years with the fire department, including some years as a firefighter.
What stresses you out the most about being a first responder?
Heather: Knowing that not everyone can be helped, some of them don’t want help and others are too far gone to help. Knowing that some of them are going to die no matter what I do.
Scottie: The unpredictable hours and schedule make it hard to plan things.
In this instance, Heather has an emotional attachment of sorts. Women are caretakers and the need to feel like they can help is innate. Scottie, like many men, shows the logical side of the job.
How do you cope with the stress?
Heather: I’m lucky, I can talk to my husband and he understands because he’s in the same field and faces the same things I do on a daily basis. I distract myself with things that I find fun. Spend time with my daughter.
Scottie: I know it’s not healthy but I internalize things, become quiet and try to deal with it myself.
People are innately social, and women look for the support sooner than men. Not that men don’t have outlets for their stress, but they are much more likely to internalize like Scottie. Maybe they don’t want their family to worry, or maybe they just feel they have things under control. Either way, this is more typical of men than of women.
What brings out the worst in your emotional state?
Heather: Definitely kids. Kids that have been hurt badly. Kids that are injured due to someone else’s stupidity. The kids that you can’t save. They’re young, haven’t had a chance to live yet. It’s hard.
Scottie: Sick kids.
Kids are a sticking point, especially when the first responders themselves have kids of their own. This is not uncommon for kids to be a shared emotional toll.
How do you keep your emotions in checks on calls?
Heather: All it took was one instance where I let my emotions take over, and I became useless. I was no good to anybody. You learn to distance yourself while the call is going on, there will be plenty of time for emotions later. It’s not that I’m cold or uncaring, and I’m not afraid to cry over a patient I lose or get mad at someone for doing something later, but all of that has to be buried until the patient is safely at the hospital. Once care is turned over to the hospital it’s ok to step away and take a few minutes to cry and gather yourself back up before the next call comes out.
Scottie: I distance myself. Become almost cold and uncaring. If you don’t care about something it can’t bother you too much.
I am not sure this one goes so much to gender as it does with personality difference. Yes, females are going to be more emotional than males but some people have personalities which make it easier to step away from the job than others.
How do you cope with disasters where you know the outcome won’t be good in the end?
Heather: Like I said, distance is the key. Can’t let yourself get wrapped up and emotional because all you can do… is all you can do.
Scottie: My job is the same no matter what the ultimate outcome. I do the best that I can to help any and every patient while they’re in my care.
This one is influenced most by the experience of the career and being able to put something behind you. That isn’t to say it’s easy for anyone but first responders recognize that at the end of the day they need to focus on their jobs to help those who need them.
How often do these disasters sneak up on you after they have passed?
Heather: Not very often because I try to sort through my emotions right after it happens. I do still have one that will sneak up on me, I lost a newborn baby on a call. Never get over that.
Scottie: Every once in awhile, but I try to learn from past calls. Treat everything as a learning experience.
Experience on the job may also come into play here but women, in general, are likely to have something stay with them if it’s taken a strong emotional toll on them. Especially, again when young children are involved the nurturing side of the female takes over.
Training, experience, personality type, and gender all play into how a first responder deals with the hard stuff.