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The “Rescue Personality”:
Fact or Fiction?

The Australasian Journal of Disaster
and Trauma Studies
ISSN:  1174-4707
Volume : 2005-2

The “Rescue Personality”:
Fact or Fiction?

Shannon L. Wagner,University of Northern British Columbia, 3333 University Way, Prince George, BC, V2N 4Z9, Canada. Email: wagners@unbc.ca
Keywords: emergency services, Critical Incident Stress Debriefing, traumatic event, personality, rescue, fire, police, ambulance

Shannon L. Wagner

Health Sciences Program,
University of Northern British Columbia,


Emergency response work is known to be an especially difficult and emotional profession. Given the emotional nature of this work, an intervention called the Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD) has been developed as a method of diffusing the stress related to the experience of a critical incident. One of the fundamental tenets for the use of the CISD is a homogenous group of participants. Specifically, within the emergency services this homogeneity is, in part, reflected in what has been termed a “rescue personality”; a personality that is assumed to characterize the type of individual who chooses rescue-related work. Currently, there is little evidence for a distinct personality type that is reflective of emergency service workers as a whole.

The “Rescue Personality”:
Fact or Fiction?


Emergency response work is known to be an especially difficult and emotional profession. Accordingly, Mitchell (1983) suggests that it takes a particular kind of individual to do this type of work. That is, he suggests that there is a distinct “rescue personality”, one that is characterized by a high level of empathy, performance and dedication. On the other hand, Gist and Woodall (1998) refute the existence of this personality type given that no clear substantiating evidence appears to be available. The present paper will review several key issues related to this discussion, as well as the current literature with respect to the existence of a rescue personality. In addition, suggestions for future, meaningful research are provided.

Jeffery Mitchell, originally a firefighter himself, is most well known for his contribution of the Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD). His protocol was developed in order to address the emotional devastation that may occur as a result of emergency service work. In particular, the CISD was developed as a process of peer-support that could take place in response to a critical incident as a method of diffusing the emotional impact of the event. The CISD is a seven stage process that is provided by a Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) team with consultation from a Mental Health Professional (MHP; D’Andrea & Waters, 2000; for a complete description of the CISD, see Everly & Mitchell, 2000).

One of the primary foundations upon which the development of the CISD was based is the idea of the rescue personality. Mitchell and Bray (1990) describe emergency response workers as inner-directed, action oriented, obsessed with high standards of performance, traditional, socially conservative, easily bored, and highly dedicated. In addition, these authors describe emergency workers as people who like control, both of the situation and themselves, and enjoy being needed. Further, Mitchell (1988) suggests that in order to effectively implement CISD, a mental health professional must be aware of “the unique personalities of emergency personnel and the special jobs they perform” (p. 43). Currently, the evidence of benefit, or lack thereof, for the CISD has been the source of much debate (e.g., McNally, Bryant, & Ehlers, 2003; Jacobs, 2004). Although the efficacy of the CISD is not the focus of the current discussion, the efficacy debate is nonetheless contingent on the issue of the so-called rescue personality and its consequent existence. If the rescue personality is not a definable and evident aspect of those who choose to participate in the emergency response services, one of the primary principles that comprise the foundation for the CISD will be abandoned.

Gist and Woodall (1998) strongly refute the existence of the rescue personality as a whole; furthermore, these authors suggest that the evidence of such a personality type is scant, and in fact where such evidence is said to exist, no objective indication can be found. Specifically, Gist and Woodall provide an argument suggesting that Mitchell’s evidence of this personality type is unscientific and that when asked to produce evidence, the response was that the data was misplaced. Currently, no published data is available from Mitchell that substantiates his claim for the existence of the rescue personality; however, this is not to suggest that other published research cannot be used to provide evidence on either side of the issue. Moreover, this lack of evidence in no way suggests that future research cannot identify a rescue personality that is consistent with Mitchell’s description. Conversely, future research may describe a personality type that represents the characteristics of those who are attracted to these dangerous and emotionally involved careers, but is not consistent with the rescue personality as described by Mitchell. In contrast to the previous suggestions, the possibility also exists that given an accurate description of emergency worker personalities, no specific, identifiable pattern will be evident.

Review of Relevant Issues

Mitchell and Bray’s (1990) description of the rescue personality is evidently a series of characteristics that are intended to be descriptors of all emergency service workers, regardless of the type of rescue work involved, or the nature of the service (i.e., professional or volunteer). However, as suggested by Paton (2003), there is a “growing recognition of a need to question assumptions regarding the homogeneity of the risk status of the groups that comprise a given profession” (n.p.). Consistent with Paton’s observation, it is the position of the present author that the field would be better served by researchers attempting to describe distinct characteristics of firefighters, EMS and police separately, due to the unique nature of their organizational and response tasks. Supporting the need to evaluate the professions independently, Fannin and Dabbs (2003) found that the decision to join the fire services could be predicted by a variety of characteristics, whereas the decision to join the emergency medical services (EMS) was predicted only by extraversion.

With respect to reviewing the available literature, no studies have addressed a comparison of the personality characteristics apparent between the professions; consequently, the opportunity to truly investigate the evidence of a generalized rescue personality is limited. The present review of the literature regarding rescue personality will therefore consider findings from any of the emergency service professions independently, while simultaneously attempting to observe coherent patterns across studies that may indicate a more comprehensive description of rescuers as a whole.

A second issue that deserves consideration within any discussion of the rescue personality is the origin of descriptive characteristics that may be identified. This issue has been discussed previously with respect to the police personality, and consequently two general hypotheses for the development of this personality type are provided (e.g., Bennet, & Greenstein, 1975). The first, the “socialization model”, reflects the development of particular characteristics as a manifestation of performing policing tasks. According to this hypothesis, the individual will, as a function of job-related duties, acquire characteristics that are consistent with effective job performance. In contrast to this model, the “predispositional model” suggests that those who choose police work are characteristically similar before entering the force, and that these qualities are in fact what leads them to be initially attracted to the police services (Bennett & Greenstein, 1975). Although this debate has been previously discussed with respect to the description of police workers, it has apparently been neglected within the discussion of the rescue personality. That is, given the current literature that is available for review, there is an obvious lack of studies comparing the identifiers that may result from emergency service experience, as compare to those that reflect life-long traits initially leading to a desire for emergency service work. As a result, the first task of researchers should be, as described above, relating characteristics of workers in each of the emergency services independently. Following a well-established autonomous portrayal for each of fire, EMS, and police service personnel, it would be important to evaluate the major contributing factor involved in the development of said characteristics. That is to say, features identified as viable descriptions for those serving within each profession must be further established as either contributing or consequential factors. The specific questions would then become, are these workers attracted to fire, emergency medical or police work as a function of stable pre-employment personality traits? Or alternately, are these traits seemingly reflective of service experience and the shared requirement for certain behaviours in order to ensure efficient performance of department duties? The latter hypothesis, by its nature, implies that the descriptors are not pure personality traits. Within psychology “a personality trait is an enduring aspect of individual personality that influences behaviour in a particular domain” (Cloninger, 1996, p. 74). In light of this definition, a personal description that is evident solely as a result of experience, as in the latter hypothesis, could not be characterized as a personality trait per se, but instead should be classed as the behavioural and/or cognitive outcome of a social experience. The descriptions of the rescue personality provided by Mitchell and colleagues (e.g., Mitchell & Bray, 1990) appear to be more consistent with the former hypothesis, in that these theorists seem to suggest that the individual qualities they describe are evident pre-employment. Namely, they appear to propose that these traits are required in order to attract a worker to such an emotional and difficult profession initially. Although to the knowledge of the present author this debate has not been evaluated recently, two dated studies may provide independent support on each side. Bennett and Greenstein (1975) used value orientation as a reflection of personality and concluded that the predispositional model should be rejected as an explanation for the observed value gap between police and the public. Alternately, Hanewicz (1978) concluded that “certain personality styles appear to dominate in the police population” (p. 166) and that said personalities are evident pre-employment; thereby, in contrast to Bennett and Greestein (1975), supporting the predispositional model.

The third issue that is to be addressed is the noted lack of clear alignment for the rescue personality concept with any major theoretical orientation proposing trait approaches in personality psychology. Arguably the most well-known current trait theory within personality psychology is the Five Factor Model (FFM). Costa and McCrae’s (1992a; 1992b) FFM includes five over-arching personality dimensions that organize thirty specific facets of personality. The five factors proposed by these researchers include extraversion, neuroticism, openness to experience, agreeableness and conscientiousness. To the knowledge of the writer, the rescue personality as described thus far (Mitchell & Bray, 1990) has not been clearly identified as linked with the FFM or any other major trait theory (e.g., Cattell’s 16PF [ Cattell, Eber, & Tatsuoka, 1970], Eysenck’s Three Factor Model [Eysenck & Eysenck, 1975]). Consequently, it is difficult for researchers reviewing the literature on the rescue personality to decide which research is of most worth from the perspective of Mitchell’s description. For example, if the rescue personality was conceived as a reflection of the FFM, then one could seek out articles that have employed the NEO Personality Inventory (NEO-PI; Costa & McCrae, 1985) or its subsequent versions (NEO-PI-R; NEO-FFI; Costa & McCrae, 1992c). Providing a theoretical orientation for the rescue personality could provide both clarity and consistency within this debate, as researchers in this area could approach the issue from a defined orientation. Unfortunately, at this time such an orientation is not clear and consequently, for the purpose of the present paper, research on personality in the emergency services, regardless of perspective, will be reviewed.

The final issue to be discussed is the prominence of research using personality data for predicting successful performance of emergency service duties, or alternately predicting the likelihood of post-traumatic symptomology following exposure to critical incidents. A search of the available literature addressing personality of ERSP reveals that the research is primarily intended to provide prediction on one of these two fronts. Although the intent of this paper is not to discount the value of personality information for these purposes, the bulk of these studies have been completed using within group comparisons (e.g., Marmar, Weiss, Metzler, and Delucchi, 1996) and consequently, provide little evidence that the personality of the emergency worker is significantly different than a carefully selected control participant. In order to provide strong support for a description of a particular type of individual that is attracted to the emergency services, between group comparison or comparison with standardized values must be completed. At this time, few articles are available that have used a design allowing for a compare and contrast approach to emergency service workers’ personalities versus those that have not chosen a similar career path, but are equal on other variables of importance (i.e., age and gender). Consequently, the present article will review both within and between group comparisons. However, it should be noted that future research would be best served through well-designed studies that provide carefully selected control samples with which to compare the emergency service workers.

Review of Literature

The FFM.

As described briefly above, Costa and McCrae (1992a) support a Five Factor Model of personality. Their model is based upon lexical descriptions of behaviour and uses five major dimensions (Extraversion, Neuroticism, Openness to Experience, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness) to describe consistent individual traits. Each of these five dimensions provides a scale upon which an individual can be rated, using descriptive polar opposites as the anchors (e.g., extraversion-introversion; agreeableness-antagoism). The FFM further proposes that regardless of situational change inevitable across a life-time, every experience is interpreted using this stable collection of dispositional characteristics (Costa & McCrae, 1992a). The FFM has been well-established as a viable personality theory and has been employed widely in all types of psychological study including the exciting area of post-traumatic growth (Moran & Shakespeare-Finch, 2003), an area of certain importance for emergency service workers. As a measurement of the FFM, Costa and McCrae developed a self-report questionnaire called the NEO-PI (Costa & McCrae, 1985; 1992c). Although using Costa and McCrae’s NEO-PI to operationalize the concepts of the FFM seems the most obvious method of investigating the existence of a rescue personality, few peer-reviewed studies have used this approach for measurement of this construct.

Fannin and Dabbs (2003) used the NEO-PI for their study in which 195 urban male firefighters completed questionnaires regarding their personality type. In addition, saliva samples were collected to determine testosterone levels and indications of performance were reported by the participants’ supervisors. These authors were able to demonstrate that characteristics of fearlessness, low communion, low openness, and low agreeableness were associated with the choice to become a fire service as compared to an emergency medical service (EMS) worker; whereas, the choice to join the EMS was related solely to extraversion. Moreover, characteristics of agency, fearlessness, extraversion, and low openness were associated with higher levels of fire service performance. Interestingly, testosterone appeared to work in a complementary manner with the characteristics of fearlessness and agency. That is, firefighters with these characteristics and higher levels of testosterone reportedly demonstrated better firefighting performance. These authors interpreted this finding to suggest that testosterone may facilitate the performance of individuals in directions that they are already inclined to take.

Further research using the NEO-PI to operationalize the FFM includes Dudek (2001). This author describes the use of personality profiling as a personnel selection technique used in Poland and suggests that openness to experience appears to be predictive of good firefighter performance. It should be noted that this finding looks in contrast to the North American study of Fannin and Dabbs (2003), wherein these authors found that low openness was a predictor of the choice to join the fire services. The findings of the researchers using the NEO-PI seem to provide two general conclusions with respect to the FFM and the rescue personality; openness to experience appears to be an important aspect of emergency service personalities however, the nature of its contribution is yet unclear. In addition, the characteristics of the separate professions are likely to be distinct as evidenced by the differences between the firefighters and EMS in the former article. It should be noted that although general patterns may be suggested by the findings of available research, it is obvious in all cases that additional research is necessary in order for a clear and stable description to be discussed. This caution applies to the patterns identified with respect to the FFM as well as all subsequently identified patterns.

Cattell’s 16PF.

Cattel’s trait-related concept includes sixteen dimensions, identified using factor analytic techniques, which are used to describe normal personality. His method of measurement for these factors is called the 16PF, an instrument that provides for a pictorial representation of personality on a personality profile using the dimensions cool-warm, concrete thinking-abstract thinking, affected by feelings-emotionally stable, submissive-dominant, sober-enthusiastic, expedient-conscientious, shy-bold, tough minded-tender minded, trusting-suspicious, practical-imaginative, forthright-shrewd, self assured-apprehensive, conservative-experimenting, group oriented-self sufficient, undisciplined self conflict-following self-image, and relaxed-tense (Cattell, & Krug,1986).

A single study, completed nearly thirty years ago (Fabricator, Azen, Schoentgen, & Snibbe, 1978), used the 16PF as a measure of police personality, and found that aggressiveness and tough-mindedness were significant predictors of superior policing performance. Although this study provides a description of two personality traits evident in police workers, it does not provide any evidence that these personality traits are more common in the police sample as compared to an equivalent control group. The 16PF has evidently not been used in the recent literature for the purpose of describing the rescue personality. This is a surprising observation given that Mitchell and Bray’s (1990) descriptors (e.g., conservative, easily bored) seem consistent with many of the dimensions on this assessment tool (e.g., conservation, tense [having high drive]).

Eysenck’s Three Factor Model.

Eysenck provided psychology with his concept of personality as a combination of three factors, extraversion, neuroticism, and psychoticism. Similar to the FFM, each of these broad dimensions is a general reflection of a group of specific traits, and measurement of an individual’s personality using this model is completed via self-report on the Eysenk Personality Questionnaire (EPQ) (Eysenck & Eysenck, 1975). A study regarding personality in the emergency services that reflects this model includes an earlier paper by Fenster and Locke (1973) in which these researchers found that for 548 male subjects who completed the Eysenck Personality Questionnaire, police personnel scored lower on the neuroticism scale than did non-police civilians. In a separate study, Hui et al (2001) stated that for military rescuers who were high on the Eysenck Personality – Neuroticism scale, higher levels of post traumatic symptoms were indicated. Thompson and Solomon (1991) also provide a description of Eysenck’s personality with the emergency services; however, caution must be applied given that the sample was composed of a small number (N = 31) of volunteer workers. Caution is necessary in comparing volunteer and professional emergency workers given that there are potential differences on a large number of variables (e.g., personal control, experience with traumatic exposure) similar to the differences perceived as evident between the professional emergency service careers. Nonetheless, given the paucity of research in the realm of personality for emergency workers, Thompson and Solomon (1991) provide a valuable contribution to knowledge in this area, with their finding that “the group is significantly less neurotic than average, and have significantly lower scores on the lie scale. Their non-significant tendency to be more extroverted and more tender minded (lower on Psychoticism) suggests that they are a social and caring group” (p. 242). Initial reactions to the two studies using Eysenck’s model appear to suggest that for emergency workers employed in policing type roles (i.e., volunteer police work or military) lower levels of neurotiscism may be indicated as a regularly occurring, positive attribute.

Studies using other measures of personality.

From the perspective of the present author, identification with one of the three previously described personality theories would result in the clearest and most interpretable description of a rescue personality. However, possibly due to a lack of identification of the rescue personality with a specific personality theory, studies have been completed using a variety of measures to operationalize this construct within the emergency services.

Jachnis (1996) considered a sample of firefighters, professional boxers, candidates for the boxing sport and amateur sportsmen (N = 128). This author found that the firefighters were more likely to show a dynamic-rigid set of temperament characteristics and a low level of reactivity when compared to the other participants. On the contrary, there were no between-group differences in behavioural mobility. This study may be of particular importance in that its intent was to provide a description of firefighters’ temperamental characteristics versus those of individuals in other occupations.

Other studies that may be informative, but were not intended to explicitly address the issue of emergency service personalities, include Dougal, Hyman, Hayward, McFeeley and Baum (2001), as well as others that will be subsequently reviewed. These authors used the eight-item LOT to investigate the effect of optimism on level of functioning after a critical incident. Specifically, these researchers found that in a sample of 159 rescue workers that attended the crash site of US Air Flight 427, an optimistic disposition predicted less self-reported distress, less use of avoidant and greater use of problem-focused coping strategies, as well as more available social support.

Gohm, Baumann and Sniezek (2001) were primarily interested in the relationship between acute stress and cognitive difficulties. Although this research was not focused specifically on the personality of firefighters, the sample that was selected consisted of forty-nine firefighter trainees who completed a personality measure (Trait Meta-Mood Scale) several weeks before performing a series of live-fire exercises. The results indicated that firefighters who were classified as high clarity (felt they could clearly interpret their emotions) were less likely to have cognitive difficulties during the live-fire exercises. In contrast, cognitive difficulties were not associated with either reported emotional intensity or reported attention to emotions.

Liao, Arvey, Butler & Nutting (2001) considered the personality profiles of 171 firefighter recruits that were collected during routine hiring practice procedures. These authors found that the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory scales, conversion hysteria, psychopathic deviate, and social introversion were all associated with an increased level of injury frequency. In addition, the psychopathic deviate and schizophrenia scale were predictive for longer leave durations after an injury occurred. In a separate study, Moran, Britton and Corey (1992) demonstrated that the volunteer ERSP in their sample did not demonstrate increased “hardiness”, a characteristic anticipated as reflective of emergency response workers.

Marmar, Weiss, Metzler, and Delucchi (1996) using the Hogan Personality Inventory, demonstrated that in response to trauma, a higher risk for dissociative responses and subsequent post traumatic stress was related to rescue workers who were shy, inhibited, uncertain about their identity, reluctant to take leadership roles, had a global cognitive style, an external locus of control, or used emotional suppression as a coping mechanism.

Finally, Regehr, Goldberg, Glancy, and Knott (2002) sampled a group of 86 paramedics regarding exposure to traumatic events, use of mental health stress leave (MHSL), social support, current levels of distress and personality patterns using the Bell Object Relations and Reality Testing Inventory. These authors found that reporting post traumatic stress symptoms in the high or severe range was associated with previous use of MHSL. Moreover, paramedics who were characterized as suspicious, hostile, isolated, or as having a tendency to exhibit demanding, controlling or manipulative behaviour in relationships, were more likely to have used MHSL in the past. Additionally, Regehr, Hill and Glancy (2000) had professional (N = 99) and volunteer (N = 65) firefighters complete similar questionnaires to the previous study. Their results indicated that higher levels of depression and post-traumatic symptoms following a critical incident were found in individuals that reported feelings of insecurity, a lack of personal control and relative alienation from others.

Many of the previously described studies (e.g., Regehr, Hill, & Glancy, 2000) provide descriptive information regarding personality, but only within the context of prediction for post-traumatic symptomology. Consequently, although it may be appropriate to discuss these finding in a review of available literature such as the present paper, any use of these articles to suggest a specific, discrete personality that is descriptive of emergency service workers, either as a group or as distinct professions, would likely be inappropriate. Such within group comparisons do not provide evidence for this personality type in comparison to normal personality variation, but instead describe the personality characteristics of emergency workers that are beneficial to performance or predictive of mental health. Furthermore, although mental health outcome is not the focus of the present paper, the above review of studies using personality measurement with emergency personnel seems to suggest that personality and social factors predictive of mental health in these professionals are similar to those that provide either risk or resilience for the mental health of workers in general. For example, as described above, Dougal, Hyman, Hayward, McFeeley and Baum (2001) found that an optimistic disposition predicted less self-reported distress, less use of avoidant and greater use of problem-focused coping strategies, as well as more available social support. This finding is consistent with that of other studies not focused on emergency service populations; as an example, Scheier, Carver, and Bridges (2000) reported that optimistic individuals are more likely than pessimistic individuals to use problem-focused coping strategies.

With respect to evaluating the rescue personality, the studies listed above provide few strong indications of generalized personality patterns, as personality description was not their primary intent. Two articles that may provide clearer evidence for distinct character descriptions are those of Jachnis (1996) and Moran, Britton and Corey (1992). In particular, Jachnis (1996) describes firefighters as being less reactive than members of several other occupations. This finding may be explained by observing the nonchalant manner in which experienced firefighters respond to serious emergencies. A lower level of reactivity may reflect the need of firefighters to “keep their cool” in situations where panic could be considered a natural reaction. This potential explanation would be more consistent with a socialization model as described above, in that lower reactivity may be a learned behaviour as a result of continual exposure to traumatic incidents. Alternately, it may be that only those individuals with an inherent tendency of low reactivity are successfully recruited and retained in the fire service, due to the necessity of this trait for adequate performance in stressful situations. In contrast to the former explanation, this suggestion would clearly be more supportive of a pre-dispositional model. Consequently, in order to determine the origin of a low-reactivity trait in firefighters, further research will be required to determine if a trait of low-reactivity is evident in fire-fighter recruits as well as seasoned fire service workers.

Moran, Britton and Corey (1992) also described fire service workers when they stated that volunteer firefighters did not show increased “hardiness” as would be suspected in emergency personnel. However, this finding may be a reflection of the qualitative nature of volunteer versus professional firefighting and should be investigated further. That is, it may be that those who are interested in the fire services but feel unprepared to perform dangerous and emotional tasks on a very regular basis are attracted to volunteer service, where the call to duty may be less frequent and may potentially allow for more control of choice to attend certain types of incidents.

Call for Research

Gist and Woodall (1998) discuss the evidence provided thus far for the existence of a rescue personality and suggest that although the existence of such a personality is a central construct in Mitchell’s intervention model, repeated requests for substantiating evidence have been unsuccessful. That is, in the opinion of these authors, there is no evidence that one of the theoretical foundations for the development of the Critical Incident Stress Debriefing actually exists. Currently, the mental health literature includes a series of articles that discuss the overall value, or lack thereof, for the Critical Incident Stress Debriefing with emergency service personnel (for a complete review see Wagner, 2005). However, in these articles the discussion is specific to the value of the intervention as it currently stands; the lack of evidence for one of its fundamental, historical foundations is rarely discussed.

In light of Gist and Woodall’s criticism of Mitchell’s unwillingness or inability to provide documentation of his described personality type, the present paper has attempted to provide an overview of other research available that may shed some light on the question of the personality type of firefighters, emergency medical workers, and/or police. Unfortunately, no single article is available that directly addresses the comment that “the police officer/firefighter/paramedic personality is significantly, statistically different from the average population” (Hopper, 1998, p. 7 quoted in Gist & Woodall, 1998), and no consistent outcome is evident across the articles that are presently available. Consequently, before the discussion between the two sides in the Critical Incident Stress Debriefing debate continues, it is imperative that further research be completed to determine whether the CISD is standing on rocks or sand.

Ideally, research regarding the existence of a rescue personality would address each of the four issues outlined earlier in this paper. That is, it is suggested that the best approach to research regarding the rescue personality would be for it to occur within the context of a strong theoretical position. Given the well-established and well-accepted stature of the FFM, as well as its use in other post-trauma studies (Moran & Shakepeare-Finch, 2003), the present author would suggest the NEO-PI as the measurement tool of choice. In addition, homogeneity across professions should not be assumed (Paton, 2003) and fire services, emergency medical services, and police services should be investigated independently. Once the personality characteristics of individuals from each profession are identified, patterns of similarities and differences can possibly be used to suggest a comprehensive rescue personality that uniformly describes all individuals attracted to any emergency service career. In the opinion of the present author, such a comprehensive picture is unlikely to be revealed. A third requirement of adequate research into the rescue personality will require that the pre-dispositional model be investigated as compare to the socialization model. In order to test these hypotheses, researchers could use a multi-group design in which experienced emergency responders (within a single profession) are compared to an equivalent control group, a group of emergency service trainees, as well as a group of trainees in a related, non-emergency field. Finally, rather than using personality as a predictor of mental health outcomes, truly investigating the rescue personality will require research comparing emergency workers with equivalent controls, or alternately with normative data. Demonstrations of such designs can be found in the work of several authors. For example, Jachnis (1996) compared personalities of emergency responders with those of individuals from other occupations, providing evidence that there were distinct characteristics of firefighters that were not shared with the members of other professions. Shakepeare-Finch, Smith, and Obst (2002), while investigating coping not personality, provided an example of an appropriate method in that they employed the use of a non-emergency worker control group with which to directly compare their sample of ambulance service members. A final example of a useful methodology is found in the work of Thompson and Solomon (1991) where the personalities of volunteer police were compared with available normative data and demonstrated less than average levels of neuroticism.

In addition to the above issues, it must be noted that any study that has as its sole purpose to describe the personality of emergency workers, as a group or as distinct units, will still not fully address the existence of a rescue personality. Besides the methodological and substantive issues inherent in conclusions drawn from a single study, personality is a socially dependent concept; it may be that the personalities of individuals who choose to enter the emergency services in one region differ substantially from those who choose to enter these services within other cultural contexts (i.e., collectivist versus individualistic social structure; Triandis, 2005). Moreover, gender issues are going to become of greater concern for emergency response researchers who are attempting to describe this specialized population. That is, as more women are choosing to enter the fire and other emergency services, the nature of the rescue personality may be altered as a function of increased feminine influence (Berg & Budnick, 1986).


The existence of a rescue personality is a fundamental tenet for a very controversial method of intervention. Given this personality type’s important role within the field of emergency service mental health, it is a serious detriment to researchers, practitioners, and emergency response service workers alike, that the question of its existence has not been adequately addressed. The potential effectiveness of the CISD with fire, emergency medical, and police service workers is theoretically dependent on these individuals being a homogenous, but independent, group. Specifically, within the emergency services this homogeneity is, in part, assumed to be reflected in the rescue personality, a personality that is purported to characterize the type of individual who chooses to perform rescue-related work. Currently, there is little evidence for a distinct personality type that is reflective of emergency service workers as a whole.


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Shannon L. Wagner © 2005. The author assigns to the Australasian Journal of Disaster and Trauma Studies at Massey University a non-exclusive licence to use this document for personal use and in courses of instruction provided that the article is used in full and this copyright statement is reproduced. The authors also grant a non-exclusive licence to Massey University to publish this document in full on the World Wide Web and for the document to be published on mirrors on the World Wide Web. Any other usage is prohibited without the express permission of the author.

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