Post-traumatic stress disorder has jettisoned its way to the forefront of firefighter health and wellness in recent years. It is a problem that hits home for a substantial populous of the United States Fire Service, and for good reason. According to the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance (2016), PTSD and its underlying consequences have taken the lives of at least 131 firefighters and EMS workers in 2016 alone (Dill, 2016), and that’s only in the United States. This figure sadly includes my senior man and partner of the last 5 years.
The fire service as a whole has done an exceptional job of identifying and educating its membership of the problem, but the time has come to look inward. We must ask ourselves an even more taxing question. Are we responsible for creating and perpetuating the growing epidemic of PTSD and suicide in the fire service?
This question takes its’ roots in the ever developing process of fire service recruitment. Nationwide we dangle before aspiring professionals the bounty of solid pay, great benefits, and an overall culture of camaraderie and family. We sell the position of firefighter from the same platform as white collar business and industry, and we veil our sales pitch behind the shroud of our pop culture image, one that perpetually emphasizes the miracle save and the happy ending, the affluent and beautiful world of the Hollywood fire service where everyone goes home safe and suffering only last for 30-90 minutes (with commercials). Are we selling our future recruits a lie?
The truth is the members of the fire service live in a dark and complex world, one tucked away beneath the surface, where the majority of society will never venture to look. It’s not just the gore and the death; but the abuse, the poverty, and the barrage of sickness, pain, and suffering that will span nearly a lifetime; or at the very least a 20-30 year career.
We Are The Sin Eaters
We as firefighters are the ‘Sin-Eaters,’ tasked with stepping beyond the light of the world into the dark corners where few people choose (or even know) to look. We do this by choice, each and every one of us, and we bear the responsibility of what we see, hear, and smell. We do this, willingly, because as firefighters the public has entrusted us to be strong, calculated, and decisive where others can not because in doing so we ever so often have the opportunity to do something truly remarkable…save a life.
The most important takeaway of this concept is that we do this by choice. We expose ourselves by choice. However, in failing to paint an adequate picture of what we do for our future recruits, we have taken away from them the opportunity to look inward, and to truly ask themselves if they are prepared for what we are tasked with doing. How can we expect to mitigate the problem of PTSD and suicide in the fire service if we first fail to prepare those we recruit for the realities of what we do in the first place?
The first step in combating PTSD in the fire service is to ensure we take on the responsibility of recruiting those who are mentally prepared and discouraging those who are not. If we continue to fail in this respect, the responsibility of their disease or their death rests squarely at our feet, because we are the ones who brought them in under false pretense. The dark side of the fire service should be no less transparent in fire department recruitment, than the fact that we run into burning buildings.
After The Pitch
It is critical that the recruitment process be retooled in order for PTSD in the fire service to truly be mitigated, but it must also extend beyond recruiting, and into employment. The fire service as a whole is exemplar in educating its membership as to the existence of, and subsequent consequences of PTSD and psychological disorders. However, dissemination without resolution can manifest into a dangerous and detrimental environment.
In the age of digital information and social media, it is nearly impossible as a firefighter to log onto a
computer or smartphone without finding an email, memo, or social media post highlighting the prevalence of psychological distress within the fire service. Often these posts showcase a growing list of our brothers and sisters who have committed suicide or fallen victim to the grips of depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.
True to our nature as servicemen, we are quick to spread the word of this growing epidemic in our field. We are even quicker to honor those who have fallen. However, we are failing as an organization to reach beyond education, awareness, and mitigation to the real solution, prevention. Quite the opposite, we are (in fact) promoting the growth of the very problem we are trying so desperately to prevent.
We hire new members to carry on our profession and craft, and we have a responsibility to correct the massive misconceptions we have allowed to infiltrate the hiring and training process. Members are recruited under a false pretense of the mental stamina required of our position and subsequently saturated with education and information pertaining to PTSD, substance abuse, and suicide. Consequently, future generations of firefighters are taught to believe that the behaviors exhibited by those suffering from mental distress are the expected behaviors of persons in their position. This may very well be contributing to the 63% increase in reported firefighter suicides in the United States since 2012.
By over saturating our membership with information pertaining to this grave problem we are forcing them to ask the question “Is this how I’m supposed to feel?” Inevitably a portion of our members will manifest the ‘expected’ response. They will begin to believe that they are expected to be haunted by the things we do, see, hear, and experience because we as an organization have conditioned them to believe this response is ‘the norm”.
One of the greatest points of pride for firemen is the ability to handle an infinite number of situations that the general public could never even begin to imagine. We take great pride in the responsibility of being asked to mitigate any situation that our crews are tasked with resolving, and doing so in a manner that is calm, calculated, and professional. This is one of the greatest traditions carried on the backs of firefighters for centuries, the ability to show up and help where no one else can. It is the very essence of why firefighters have been held in such high regard since the inception of the fire service. However, we have an obligation to maintain this image in the public eye, and we have an obligation to staff our departments and apparatus with members who are prepared to be mentally strong when others can not. We as firefighters hold greater respect and dignity in the public eye than nearly any profession on earth, and the reason is simple, we are there when you need us. It is time for the fire service to move beyond education of PTSD and psychological wellness in the fire service, and to shift its focus towards preventative measures that begin at the recruitment process and build from a foundation of personnel who are prepared for the task that lies before them, who are prepared to show up and perform, fully aware that no one else is coming if we fail.
In 2014 while speaking to the concept of post-traumatic stress growth General James Norman Mattis stated that “while victimhood in America is exalted, I do not think that our veterans should join those ranks” (Mattis, 2014). I think the same should be true of nations firefighters. If we continue to tell our members that they are somehow damaged by what we do, it is only a matter of time before they come to believe this is true. However if we empower them with a sense of pride to be strong and courageous when others cannot, we will bread future generations of firefighters whom will rise to the call to serve their fellow man selflessly and without question, who will wear their battle scars with pride, as they tell a story of a life dedicated to the service of others.
This is our call to action for the fire service. We are not damaged, but rather forged in the fires of our craft to be stronger and more resilient than ever before, because we as firemen are called upon to exhibit this strength unwaveringly.
Mattis, James N. General “General Mattis on PTG.” YouTube. YouTube, 06 Jan. 2017. Web. 06 Feb. 2017.
Dill, Jeff, Captain. “What Are These Numbers? « Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance.” What Are These
February 4, 2017
Numbers? « Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance. Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance, 01 Jan. 2017. Web.
06 Feb. 2017.