The fire service is a very special field. Those of us that work in it know this, and those aspiring to enter the field hope to find out. I don’t think I have ever talked with a firefighter who didn’t love this job. Now, that’s not to say that there aren’t those of us who experience burnout, depression, or just a general lack of zeal from time to time. But I believe most would say they LOVED being a firefighter. I wonder how it is that we love a job so much. Especially one that can expose us to such sorrow and destruction. Since 2001, I have had that type of love for this job. I have volunteered and understand the daily struggle of those departments. And now, I am fortunate enough to make my living riding the officers seat in a fire truck. I think I know why most of us love what we do amidst all the pain, and I also believe there are ways to make it an even better profession.
If you have been in the emergency services for any length of time, you know what you can see. Make sure you are no stranger to the programs and help offered for responders who may be “at the end of their rope” or battling the numerous demons that may creep up. We are given the numbers to chaplains, peer counselors, suicide hotlines, and employee assistance programs, and yet we still find emergency services professionals coping with things like alcoholism, depression, drug use and suicide. Why?
PTSD seems to be the buzzword/acronym of the moment. According to the Mayo Clinic, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares, and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event. To me, this definition may not fit the problem that responders are experiencing. After much reading and research, I think that responders are more than likely suffering from another condition called Combat Operational Stress (COS).
The reading list for a promotional exam I was studying included a book by Christopher Brennan called The Combat Position. This is an excellent book. I highly recommend it for any rank firefighter. This book was the first time I had seen any reference to COS, and the points the author makes seem very valid. The United States Marine Corps defines Combat stress as: sometimes called combat and operational stress or combat and operational stress reaction, is a common response to the mental and emotional effort active duty personnel exercise when facing tough and dangerous situations. In other words, PTSD is better used to describe the mental stress created by one event, where COS seems to reflect the cumulative type of stressors that first responders encounter.
The Marines go on to list some of the risk factors as:
– Sleeping less than 6-8 hours per day on average
– Witnessing death close up
– Losing a close friend or valued leader in combat or other operations
– Being physically injured, especially if seriously
– Close brushes with death, especially if the individual believed they were going to die
– Handling remains
– Being impacted by family, relationship, or other home front stressors
– Being young and inexperienced
I am in no way comparing the fire service to the Marine Corps, but I do find the risk factors for COS to be strikingly similar to the types of stressors that firefighters around the country may encounter. And we need to be aware of the dangers of these common stressors.
It seems clear that the fire service is made up of mostly “type A” personalities. We don’t show weakness or ask for help easily. I believe that could be the reason for the following statistic.
“Firefighter Suicides by year.”
And these numbers continue to climb as we move past 2012. One hundred and four firefighters committed suicide in 2014. We as a service should be truly shocked at these numbers. We are losing almost, and sometimes more, firefighters to suicide than we are Line of Duty Deaths. All of these “type A’s” who have dedicated their lives, and well being to making sure the people they serve stay alive, are not taking care of themselves. We don’t reach out; we bury our feelings and continue to go fix other people’s problems. WHY?
Recently my “area” has experienced the suicides of four members of the emergency services community. These have included firefighters, fire officers, and paramedics working for three different services. Receiving the news always has the same effect on my mind. It is a crushing feeling, and my thoughts seem to progress like this. Why? But he/she had so much going for them. They always seemed ok. Is there anything I could have done for them to change what they did? And it is in these times that we tend to focus on those around us. We ask members of our crew “Are you doing OK?”, “Do you need to talk about anything?”, and a genuine sense of caring arises out of such tragedy.
In the opening paragraph of this article, I spoke about the love of the job, even through the bad things we see. We love this job because we find an enormous sense of pride knowing that we have an “extended family” that will be there for us whenever we are in need. We love this job because it gives us the opportunity to be a part of something much bigger than ourselves. We love this job because we build relationships that are closer than some siblings; we always call it “Brotherhood.” We love this job because we love each other. We don’t hesitate to ask for help to fix a roof, pour concrete, work on a car, or build something. But we need to make this “Brotherhood” stronger. We have to find ways to combat our people feeling like they have nowhere to turn. Let’s put down macho-ism. Let’s put away the fear of being mocked. Let’s be the family that we can be. Talk to each other, and truly get to know each other. All of us should have at least that one person that we can talk to; at least one person that understands you. The only hurdle to jump is to trust these “brothers” and “sisters” and be willing to talk to them.
Station-Pride author James Cook wrote an article titled “Ghosts”. If you haven’t read it, please do. I have provided a link for your viewing enjoyment at the bottom. This article is one that most of us can relate to, and may be a source of comfort for some.
I would like to share a personal experience in closing that relates to my “ghosts” and those brothers of mine that helped me through my rough time.
Sleep wasn’t coming easily. A recurring dream was keeping me awake. A vivid dream that seemed to be set on repeat, and I was getting fed up with it. My family could tell that I was distant, but it comes with the territory sometimes, right? I had been to all the classes. I was up to date on how to recognize if the guys I was working with were “too stressed out” and I was willing to help should they need me. I knew that I needed more sleep, and I knew that recurring dreams could be a symptom of stress, but I was way too tough and smart for that. I was sitting in a class with several of my peers, two of whom were sitting in front of me were good friends of mine. During a break, I asked them both this question: “What do you guys know about sleep patterns?” One of them was very knowledgeable and began to tell me all about fatigue, and its effects on the body. When he finished talking, I remember asking them: “What do you know about dreams?” They both asked what kind of dreams, and I was comfortable enough with both of them to open up.
I am walking down the highway, but there are no cars anywhere in sight. I am wearing a department t-shirt, my turn-out pants, and boots. Ahead of me, in the road, single file, I see people sitting in chairs on the highway. I approach the first chair in the line ofhundreds and recognize its occupant as a patient that had died while I was there. While I am standing in front of this chair, the person opens their eyes, looks at me, and says: “I am dead because you didn’t help me.” They then close their eyes, and I move on to the next chair, with the same result. OVER and OVER and OVER again.
I go on to explain that this dream is happening every time I fall asleep, and it’s starting to wear me out. When I look at my buddies, they are both looking back at me with a total look of concern and begin to offer any help they can to get me through this problem. One of the guys explains that what I described is a “textbook” symptom of very dangerous stress. I spend the next few weeks seeking out other brothers, and mentors trying to talk it out of my head. It worked. But I found out that I am not immune from mental stress, and certainly not too tough for mental stress.
The things we see, we can’t un-see. The dangerous things we have to do are part of the job. But I urge you to keep your eyes and ears open. Watch for the signs, in others and yourself. And be your brothers keeper. I am lucky my brothers were mine.
Stay Sharp, Stay Safe
John 15:13 Greater love hath no man than he who will give up his life for a friend.
Firefighters, all too often, may lose their lives protecting the lives of total strangers.
Ghosts by James Cook: