Let's Talk Fire: The Stress of a Firefighter's Job
When does the job end?
As a veteran of two separate volunteer fire departments I have seen my fair share of fires and incidents. I have worked with men and women of stature that almost boggle the mind, and I have worked with people so timid I would almost be afraid to let them see a fire yet alone be near enough to fight it. I have seen fires destroy family homes and watched a child stand in tears as their belongings were engulfed by the beast. If any lesson has been more endowed within me and ingrained into my being it is never walk away from a scene thinking you are "man enough" to handle what you have seen. This behavior causes firefighters to suffer mental illness and even have to retire early, simply because they assumed they could live with what they saw. In this issue of Let's Talk Fire I wanted to touch base on the issue of critical stress debriefing, which may very well be the difference between long sleepless nights reliving that one scene or the realization that you can not save them all.
As firefighters we have to come to that realization that sometimes even our best is just not good enough. We have to know there will come a time when we just don't get the fire out fast enough or we don't get to a victim in time.
It can happen
It Was A Bad Day
I began my career as a volunteer in Wheelwright Kentucky where I still participate and have an active role in the department as an officer. In my first year as an on duty firefighter I was exposed to a variety of calls and incidents and most were easily dealt with and really did not play on my emotions all to much. That is until we got a mixed up call from post. The call simply stated shots fired and gave us an address. We were all pretty shocked as shots fired is generally a law enforcement issue and not one the fire department gets called out for to often. As I pulled into the scene with my father, who is an engineer on the department we were greeted by some locals who had informed us the town drunk had shot himself in the foot goofing off. I tried to hold back a laugh but it broke through and at first I was ready to assist calming a drunk whom I had known for well over a decade. Sadly this was false information and my light hearted imagination would soon suffer a grim scene that in all reality has haunted me to this very day, many years later.
As we pulled closer to the scene I could see on people's faces something else had happened, something far worse than the town drunk losing a toe playing cops and robbers. The scene looked like a funeral in a big budget movie with things moving in slow motion has each and every dramatic expression played a different tone of concern in my mind. It was only when I exited my vehicle and was briefed by my assistant chief that the reality of what was going on set in me. A man, a great man, had taken his life. A man I had spoken with earlier that day and joked around with earlier in the week had taken his life. My heart sank very low as his family might as well have been mine. In a close knit town like Wheelwright tragedy seldom falls on one house alone.
As I stood trying to get my focus and await an assignment chaos ensued as family members arrived on scene to the news that their loved one was no longer with us, at least not in the physical sense. Being a new firefighter I tried to hold back tears and keep that manly composure I thought was expected of a person on the force, all the while inside I was breaking apart at what was going on around me. Tears were everywhere and inside I shook like the last leaf on a tree that was blowing in a fierce wind. My assignment was to direct trafficand control the scene by keeping anyone who did not need to be there out of the area. I knew even in my emotional state of confusion I could handle the task that was given me.
As I stood there my mind played over images of the man who had made the drastic decision to end his existence and I could not hold back the tears. It was about an hour and a half in when I was given the task of assisting the load the individual into the ambulance for transport. I swallowed hard because I was not certain I was cut out for the job but I felt that ambulance crew swell up in me, pride I would later come to know as ignorance. I watched as they removed the body and I saw the aftermath of what had been done. At first maybe it was firefighter pride morbid curiosity that forced my head to look onward, maybe it was the fact that firefighters don't show emotion or fear, also an act of stupidity on my part. Whatever it was I looked on my friend and saw something that to this day still pops up in my mind and brings me right back to that seat of fear I set in that night.
The Long Trip Back
I tried for days after the incident to shake what I saw and be the "man" I thought the department needed and wanted me to be. I stayed up at night because I would dream of the moment when the stretcher rolled out and I saw that crimson mist and the final results of an ill fated choice. Every Time I closed my eyes I thought long and hard about where I stood as a firefighter. How could I be "the man" if I could not face death head on and embrace what it was fearlessly? Once again I admit I was a silly probie who had a lot to learn. Days seemed to drag on for eternity as each passing hour found me more and more involved with trying to erase what I wished I had never seen.
The scene played out countless times and each time was as vivid and disturbing as the actual scene was. I was afraid I may never get over it. My fears turned into doubt for my ability to perform at my highest level for my department and the community that depended on me. This fear of what I might see next was making me a weaker, less effective firefighter and in turn putting more stress and responsibility on other members of my department. I was afraid every time tones dropped that I might once again see a friend in a way I could not deal with.
As the week drew out fire class was getting ready to start and I told my friend and soon to be chief that I may have to quit, I just wasn't man enough to handle what had happened.
We Are Not Alone
That class was the most eye opening class I had ever had. As I walked in the looks of sadness where on every face of the department. I had always heard of the fire service as a brotherhood and a sisterhood and that day I got to be a part of something much greater than the sum of it's individual parts.
As class began our chief, possibly the toughest old bird I had ever known spoke with a shaky voice and tears in his eyes. He asked if any of us needed to speak freely about what happened. I was shocked. Firefighters could be emotional and scared? They could cry in front of each other and show weakness? I was shocked but happy to know I was not the only one shook to the very core by the events of that week.
We set there and for several hours we talked about how the incident made us feel emotionally and how it made us have doubts about what we were capable of doing on the fire scene and any other incident we would be called to handle. Almost every member who was at the scene had an issue with what they saw or felt and how it was such a heartbreak to see a family destroyed like that.
We explored ways to look at the situation as more than a tragedy and how to justify how we felt. By the end of the night I had felt a lot better about myself and I learned that the stereotype of the manly firefighter was overrated and a harmful approach to the job. In those two hours light was shone at a dark point inside me and I felt more confident not only in myself but in the people I was serving with. The thing that helped me with what I needed to know was called critical stress debriefing.
The Critical Stress Debriefing
While it may sound like a complex office oriented process that would take forever it is really as simple as talking about what happened with others who were there and experienced the things you have. Talk with those who came before you and have seen much worse in the past. You adapt by learning how to cope.
I have since learned that we need not always portray ourselves as macho beasts of firefighting perfection. We are human and as such we feel and think. Each situation can play a heavy part in our development as people. I have heard stories of firefighters who tried to bottle up these moments and as a result now suffer from horrid dreams and vivid flashbacks of those moments that should have been discussed with other firefighters.
I have made it my point to speak with the older guys on my department when an incident moves me to feel more heart ache than I can take or when I have had the unwanted privilege of seeing something I would rather not see. Reality is it comes with the job. We can't just step back and put our tough faces on and pretend that seeing a person fall victim to a drunk driver, or a house containing millions of memories is now a pile of ash does not phase us.
We have to embrace that what we do requires a stomach for things that are most distasteful and a heart to help whenever and wherever we can. Sometimes that comes with a price, but with the help of our brothers and sisters we can get the help we need to move past what we have seen and know that we fight a fight that is good.
We must accept that with great achievement there will also be great heartache and sorrow. I advise any firefighter, old or new to seek council when faced with a situation that stirs you from sleep with sweat balling on your forehead, or one that plays out over your daily activities clouding your judgment with what ifs. Remember learn from the past for survival in the future.
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