Katherine Castro, MPH, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT Joseph Allen, PhD, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT Andrea Davis, MPH, Drexel University, Philadelphia, PA Stacy Boyer, PhDc, Drexel University, Philadelphia, PA Emilee Eden, MPH, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT Ashley M. Geczik, MPH, Drexel University, Philadelphia, PA Jennifer A. Taylor, PhD, Drexel University, Philadelphia, PA

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. fire service personnel have reported increased physical and mental demands. The purpose of this study is to dive deeper into the experiences of the US fire service and examine these demands and identify resources.

The unique job demands placed on first responders has led to growing concerns related to their mental health. In 2018, SAMHSA reported that around 30 percent of first responders would develop behavioral health conditions compared to 20 percent in the general public. Dealing with emergencies and disasters of a prolonged nature will increase the risk of mental health issues. The COVID-19 pandemic created greater pressures for an already strained first responder system. Seeing the need and the opportunity for assessment, The Center for Firefighter Injury Research and Safety Trends (FIRST) at Drexel University received funds to merge two of their ongoing projects to create an in-depth mental health assessment to gauge the psychological impact of COVID-19 on fire-based first responders during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Preliminary findings from the COVID-19 RAPID Mental Health Assessment (RAPID) indicated increases in burnout, anxiety, depression, and intention to leave the profession among participants as well as decreases in job satisfaction, work engagement, and organizational support. The top five responses to how the pandemic was impacting first responders were: fear of spreading the virus to family/friends, change in eating patterns, change in sleeping patterns, required by work to quarantine, and lack of access to PPE. To better understand the reported physical and emotional demands faced by fire-based first responders, qualitative data depicting firsthand accounts of the fire department’s challenges during this time are needed.

Semi-structured interviews and focus groups were conducted with 15 out of the 20 fire departments participating in RAPID. There were ten focus groups and five interviews during the final two months of the RAPID assessment between September and October of 2020. After the data was transcribed and organized, content analysis occurred to identify key themes. Coding was conducted by four coders in NVivo version 12. Following best practices for qualitative data analysis, agreement between coders was tested for each question until the coders had a .80 kappa value or higher. Data analysis is ongoing and will be fully completed by the conference date.

Preliminary findings indicate variability among participant’s perceived demands (i.e. challenges) and resources (i.e. support). The first two questions asked during the interviews and focus groups elicited 42 codes relating to job demands (20) and job resources (22). Around 26% of all interviews discussed job demands due to COVID-19 (Question 1) including additional stress, operational changes, information processing challenges, and uncertainty on the job. Nearly 40% of all interviews discussed resources to cope with challenges (Question 2) including inter-member support, policy changes, department-sponsored psychological/emotional resources, and additional external collaboration. Higher-level thematic analyses will identify themes surrounding job demands and resources and be shared in greater detail during the presentation.

The fire service is a high-demand occupation that incurred additional demands due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. Our results will provide important, rich insights into the experiences of fire-based first responders during the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, these results will help us understand what the fire service perceives as their most prominent demand during the pandemic and what resources could help mitigate that strain. Further, given the results mentioned from the quantitative assessments, the findings to be shared here will help further explain the variability found with the COVID-19 RAPID Mental Health Assessment.

Initial findings show more discussion surrounding resources compared to demands. Further analysis is needed to identify key themes and determine which resources best mitigate the strain from the additional job demands due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tags: Basic research, COVID-19, Emerging Issues, Job Attitudes; Turnover; and Retention, Public safety, Theoretical and Conceptual Issues in Job Stress, Workplace Stress; Outcomes; and Recovery