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Firefighter Psychology in Dealing With Crisis

A Norway-UK collaboration.

Key points

  • A firefighter’s job entails significant mental stress, which is not always fully admitted or redressed.
  • We conducted research with senior firefighters in Norway and the UK to understand better their psychological responses to crisis.
  • Technical skills must not be neglected, although much more training and support is needed for people skills.

Dealing with death and destruction produces psychological impacts, including for firefighters. They are trained for difficult situations, yet the impacts can be severe on mental health. We have a research project interviewing firefighters about their psychological responses when they are dealing with crises.

Led by Jarle Eid at the University of Bergen in Norway, where he is professor of work and organizational psychology, the project’s financial support comes from Regionalt forskningsfond (RFF) Vestland (Bergen’s county’s regional research fund). The work is a collaboration with University College London, with Gianluca Pescaroli leading there as associate professor in operational continuity and disaster resilience. We are examining the similarities and differences among firefighters in London and Bergen.

Our focus is on leaders and managers. The interviewees are fully trained as operational firefighters, while they are now in senior positions. We want to know how they have dealt with and currently deal with psychologically stressful situations in the line of duty. Eight interviews in London and nine in Bergen related stories of adversity and comradeship, of situations threatening their own lives, and of saving others under horrendous circumstances.

They have had to respond to vehicle crashes, terrorist threats and attacks, and suicide attempts and completions. London call-outs include unexploded ordnance from World War II. Plus, they deal with usual fires, especially given both cities’ long histories of flames.

History of Fires in Bergen and London

Ilan Kelman
Source: Ilan Kelman

Since 1979, part of Bergen has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is Bryggen, the main wharf, comprising closely packed wooden buildings that have burned at least 16 times since the city was founded around 1070. The last major conflagration was in 1955. Now, in addition to building codes, planning, and training aiming to avoid a city-wide firestorm, cameras monitor the city for unusual heat patterns to trigger a rapid response.

London’s famous inferno was in 1666 leading to a complete redesign of the city. World War II witnessed continual incendiaries dropped by the German Air Force, the Luftwaffe, with December 29–30, 1940, a particularly bad raid, including the deaths of a dozen firefighters. Then, in June 2017, a residential building, the Grenfell Tower, blazed for more than two days killing 72 people.

Mental Health Impacts

Mental health impacts are understandably ever-present. The interviewees, though, were mainly psychologically informative through the absence of direct statements. In narrating stories and experiences, the language was neither overly nor overtly emotional. They principally described their observations, even of themselves. Mental health and psychosocial support were raised infrequently and did not come across as being part of their routines.

The firefighter workplaces remain dominated by men. No interviewees in Bergen and only two in London are women. Nonetheless, Bergen’s fire chief, Bergen’s research coordinator, London’s deputy mayor for fire and resilience, and London’s urban resilience manager are all women. A major research gap persists in understanding men–women similarities and differences regarding psychological reactions and coping for themselves and for colleagues, both men and women.

Effects of the Pandemic

The firefighters did provide clear descriptions of issues compounded by the lockdowns addressing the COVID-19 pandemic as they continued working. Empty streets highlighted their isolation and loneliness in having to avoid colleagues on other shifts and thoroughly cleaning everything before they went home after work.

Companionability and competencies were too often missing as team members were forced to isolate or to avoid work when ill. Yet, they gained skills in training and managing remotely, which continues to assist them today. National COVID-19 responses opened up professional opportunities that are still used.

In fact, many parallel recommendations emerged from both locales for supporting psychological coping during day-to-day occupational risks alongside less usual circumstances, from disease to terrorism. Training must never short-change operational skills, from diving through smoke to suppressing flammable liquids alight. It must also include leadership and management skills to support colleagues and to ensure honest evaluation and self-reflection.

During the next call-out, it might save one’s own life or that of others.


Eid, J., A.L. Hansen, N. Andreassen, R. Espevik, G. Brattebø, and B.H. Johnsen. 2023. “Developing local crisis leadership - A research and training agenda,” Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 14, article 1041387.

Johnsen, B.H., R. Espevik, J. Eid, Ø. Østerås4, J.K. Jacobsen, and G. Brattebø. 2022. “Coordinating Mechanisms Are More Important Than Team Processes for Geographically Dispersed Emergency Dispatch and Paramedic Teams.” Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 13, article 754855.

Miller, J.L. and G. Pescaroli. 2018. “Psychosocial capacity building in response to cascading disasters: A culturally informed approach.” International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, vol. 30, part B, pp. 164–171.

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