Wellness Tips for Emergency Responders

8 Dimensions of Wellness for Firefighters, EMS Personnel + 911 Dispatchers

By The VFIS Team on December 5, 2023

A multi-faceted approach to helping first responders prevent, cope with and recover from behavioral health concerns.

Wearing dirty gear was once a badge of honor, but now keeping your PPE clean is widely known as a key component in firefighter cancer prevention. Running on zero sleep was once a given for every EMS provider, but it’s now known that fatigue can lead to dangerous mistakes in patient care, deadly ambulance crashes and short emergency services careers. Remaining emotionless call after call once meant a dispatcher was cut out for the job, but now it’s recognized as a possible warning sign of compassion fatigue or avoidance.

In short, what it means to practice health and safety in emergency services is everchanging—and that’s one of the many reasons it’s crucial for every emergency service organization to have a dedicated, holistic and continually-updated wellness program.

What is wellness?

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), wellness connects all aspects of behavioral health and is central to recovery from behavioral health conditions.

What is behavioral health?

The SAMHSA defines behavioral health as the “promotion of mental health, resilience and wellbeing, the treatment of mental and substance use disorders, and the support of those who experience and/or are in recovery from these conditions, along with their families and communities.” Simply put: it’s your full range of health and overall wellbeing.

The connection between wellness, behavioral health + emergency services

While behavioral health is important for everyone to understand and address, it’s especially important for those in the emergency services community as the SAMHSA estimates that 30% of first responders develop behavioral health conditions, including depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is about 10% higher than the general population.

You can actively work to help combat behavioral health concerns in your emergency service organization by prioritizing wellness. In fact, the SAMHSA states that wellness can help decrease risk factors that lead to premature death among individuals with behavioral health conditions and improve quality of life and longevity of life, especially for individuals with behavioral health conditions.

What does it mean to prioritize your wellness?

Prioritizing wellness is more than implementing one healthy habit or activity into your life. It’s about the combined impact that all of your decisions and actions have on your overall wellbeing and actively pursuing the habits and lifestyle choices that help you live a longer, healthier and happier life.

The way this looks can differ from person to person. For example, maybe you like to kickbox after a long day to relieve stress, whereas someone else on your team may prefer to meditate or watch a funny movie. Or maybe learning about nutrition could help you make better choices and lower your cholesterol, but for someone with a history of an eating disorder, discussing dietary decisions could be triggering and lead to unhealthy behavior.

What factors contribute to wellness?

The SAMHSA has identified eight interconnected dimensions of wellness that work together to help us create balance, embrace support and establish healthy routines and habits.

The 8 dimensions of wellness are:

  1. Physical wellness: including your nutrition, physical activity, sleep habits, substance use, medication safety and preventative and routine health monitoring.
  2. Intellectual wellness: participating in things that keep your brain active, like taking time for your personal interests, learning new things, doing brain exercises and having conversations.
  3. Financial wellness: understanding and feeling satisfaction in your current and future income, debt, savings and financial resources (i.e. retirement fund).
  4. Environmental wellness: all of the things that contribute to you being and feeling safe, like access to basic needs (clear air, water and food), a pleasant and stimulating home and work environment and ability to enjoy time outdoors.
  5. Spiritual wellness: your personal beliefs and values that help give your life meaning, purpose and peace.
  6. Social wellness: relationships and communities that give you support and allow you to offer support for others.
  7. Occupational wellness: including work and volunteer opportunities that present positive relationships, balance and a sense of accomplishment.
  8. Emotional wellness: the ability to express your feelings, practice self-care and manage stress in a healthy way.

Get more wellness resources for emergency responders>>>

5 Tips to help your emergency service organization support your members’ wellness.

From missing holidays with family, experiencing increasingly negative interactions with the public, moonlighting to pay the bills and reliving traumatic situations—your team experiences more behavioral health risks than most people can imagine. That’s why it’s important for you to implement holistic wellness initiatives that remain an ongoing priority. Here are a few tips to help you get started:

  • Take a comprehensive approach.
    Develop holistic program(s) that include provisions around the eight dimensions of wellness, like requiring routine physical examinations, sharing mental health resources, implementing cancer prevention practices, having an annual presentation from a local finance expert and instituting a peer support program. Also consider how you can address the top behavioral health concerns in fire and emergency services, including stress, workplace violence, addiction, PTSD, depression and suicide.
  • Instill a culture of wellness.
    Create a top-down, bottom-up culture that understands the importance of wellness, prioritizes it and encourages seeking assistance when needed.
  • Support individuals’ journeys.
    Remembering that wellness can look different to different people, allow for flexibility within your agency’s routine so each member can participate in activities that work best for them.
  • Stay up to date with industry standards.
    Closely follow industry leaders and experts, like the NFPA, to help ensure your programs, guidelines and procedures align with the latest recommendations.
  • Never stop having conversations.
    Talk to your members about the importance of wellness and behavioral health—often. For example, you could have a workshop to discuss what habits your members currently have that positively or negatively contribute to each dimension of wellness, what positive changes they could make to help them live longer happier lives and how your organization could help them accomplish those tasks.

Improving the wellness efforts in your organization doesn’t have to be costly—but the cost of not doing so cannot be overstated. You have the power to help your team have healthier and more productive emergency service careers—and lives—and we thank you for making that important mission a priority.

Get More Resources For Emergency Responders

The VFIS Team

VFIS is the largest provider of insurance, education and consulting services for fire departments, ambulance and rescue squads and 911 centers in North America, having pioneered the first tailored insurance package for this industry in 1969.


The information contained in this blog post is intended for educational purposes only and is not intended to replace expert advice in connection with the topics presented. Glatfelter specifically disclaims any liability for any act or omission by any person or entity in connection with the preparation, use or implementation of plans, principles, concepts or information contained in this publication.

Glatfelter does not make any representation or warranty, expressed or implied, with respect to the results obtained by the use, adherence or implementation of the material contained in this publication. The implementation of the plans, principles, concepts or materials contained in this publication is not a guarantee that you will achieve a certain desired result. It is strongly recommended that you consult with a professional advisor, architect or other expert prior to the implementation of plans, principles, concepts or materials contained in this publication.

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