Firefighters have been around since bucket brigades started in the 1600s, so after 400 plus years it might be a good idea to focus on how we as a society can help protect from and possibly prevent PTSD from even happening in the first place. So until that happens, I might not let this subject rest.
Why has so little research been done to gain an understanding of trauma and firefighting?
I am going to venture to think that one challenge to research could be engaging such a large population in research that will actually convey a general understanding. How can you compare volunteers to career firefighters or career firefighters to contract firefighters overseas in terms of what you see and what you deal with, you simply can’t. After that, there is a whole other layer to compare in regards to the environment the station is in, the frequency of calls and intensity of calls. We just aren’t comparing apples to apples.
I combed through articles and research where scholars are attempting to study and figure this out, but the research is extremely limited and very few studies have actually been done. Some studies lead to dead ends. However, some of the research leads to actual evidence that makes some sense and is worth investigating further.
What does the research say that is helpful?
One very interesting point stands out as I rifle through the limited research; gallows humor plays a large role in a firefighter’s ability to manage and overcome trauma. Having witnessed interactions of firefighters in day rooms, humor is intertwined into almost all conversations. There is more banter, friendly interrogations, sarcastic comments and jokes involving everyone and their mother heard between firefighters than in almost any other workplace I have stepped foot in. This banter back and forth encourages and fosters positive relationships with one another. This all relates back to one of my original proposals that protective factors are built into fire departments to protect you all from the negative effects of trauma.
To gain a better understanding of trauma in firefighters, a study was conducted on 128 firefighters in an urban environment. The research ranked coping mechanisms identified by all the firefighters in the study and “found most useful among the sample were the use of humor followed by support from coworkers, family support, exercise, and kitchen table discussion at the firehouse.” (1).
The form of humor that has been most effective in coping with trauma is gallows humor. Gallows humor can be best defined as “dark humor or crass joking. It is humor that treats serious, frightening, or painful subject matter in a light or satirical way, and is used in response to incidents that elicit an emotional response from firefighters or would elicit an emotional response from the average bystander” (1). This is where you find ways to use humor when dealing with an intense or horrible situation because it helps to do three things: offset the stress that you feel, distance yourself from the reality of a traumatic call and it increases camaraderie in the station.
What role does the fire department play?
Not all negative responses to trauma can be avoided through humor and other protective factors. The fact is, you all are dealing with some of the most critical and gruesome moments in a person’s life. Your response can be the difference between a person living and dying. Whether or not you did all you could, there will be times that you don’t immediately bounce back from an incident.
Before assuming a horrifying incident is to blame for experiencing symptoms of PTSD, there are other aspects to also consider. It would be important for leadership within fire departments to first look at the organizational structure of the department to determine if it is playing a negative role. Increased work tension or stress within the organizational makeup of a fire station can be detrimental to firefighters and other emergency service personnel. In a research study published in 2015 by Josh Rinker (2), it was identified that “the day-to-day functioning of fire and EMS companies can contribute to poor mental health functioning if the resources available do not correspond with the needs of their staff.” (2) If the day-to-day is not functioning efficiently or effectively, it could increase the risk for mental health issues to arise for firefighters.
It would be interesting if Rinker’s 2015 conclusions lead to new studies that were conducted in well-functioning fire departments compared to those where firefighters are overworked, underpaid and had lower morale. Would we see that stations with better morale and more team camaraderie have fewer issues related to mental health than those that have poor morale and where firefighters or working in less than ideal conditions?
So where do we go from here?
Station Pride wouldn’t be Station Pride if we didn’t find a way to tackle an issue head-on. So we turn to you for feedback in a survey. Participating in this easy and confidential survey will help us begin to lay some groundwork to figuring out how we can move forward.
Alvarado, G. E. (2013). Gallows Humor as a Resiliency Factor Among Urban Firefighters with Specific Implications on Prevalence Rates of PTSD. Azusa: Azusa Pacific University.
Rinker, J. (2015). The relationship between emotional intelligence and Firefighters and Emergency Medical Personnel. Chicago: ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global.
The coupling of transitional attack and SLICE-RS together is a complete fallacy that is bringing a poor light on a tactic that has legitimate value on the fireground. Transitional attack is a means of attempting to control the fire, or in this application, knock it back enough so that crews can transition into the offensive mode. I make no apologies when I say that SLICE-RS is a means to killing the civilian, which was obviously unintended, but desperately needs revision.
For those that are ready to tar and feather me for saying this, let me ask you a question. In what world does a firefighter put the rescue of a civilian at the bottom of the list? You can tell me all day that our safety is paramount, to which I will adamantly disagree. We have a dangerous job that we volunteered to do; no one held a gun to your head and forced you to apply to the fire department (career or volunteer). We are asked from time to time (some more than others), to do dangerous stuff because that is what we are expected to do by those who are helpless at their worst time. That doesn’t mean be reckless and unaccountable; there are thousands of departments that are wildly successful at taking risks everyday in order to protect civilians and their property. How are these departments successful? By developing a culture of aggressiveness through training, which creates buy-in, and will automatically force out those who are not willing to perform at the same level.
I, by no means, deny the science behind the live burns in the UL/NIST studies, but a house prepped for a 1403 burn is not the same house that we are responding to at 3am with people trapped. We do not remove all non-class A combustibles before we go to a job, we don’t create our own flow path via interior set up before our jobs, and we don’t know the extent and location of the fire as we would with a live burn. In turn, I am skeptical of a lot that is produced from “Principals of Modern Fire Attack” studies.
Everything about our operations should revolve around the simultaneous rescue and fire attack operation. Transitional attack is a very viable option as a first due officer completes his size-up. A very simple, “Hey get some water on that while I do my 360” is a transitional attack providing the crew goes offensive once the size-up is complete and conditions dictate that be the appropriate course of action. Frankly, I am tired of seeing photos and videos of a 1200 sq. ft. home with one or two bedrooms off, or hell, even fire in the attic, that caused the entire home to burn down because it, “doesn’t fit our department’s survivability profile” and we aren’t going to risk anyone getting hurt. Again, we do a dangerous job and we are expected to take risk.
When we as a service create an acronym, you’re essentially creating a step-by-step list for the firefighter to follow. When we as a service make everything an acronym, we’re calling ourselves dumb. I want a firefighter smart enough to analyze what he is seeing, and not just check-marking down a list. We can teach a seven year-old how to throw a ladder and how to open the bail of a nozzle, but the difference between an adult and child (other than shear strength and size) is the ability to think critically and apply critical thinking. Acronyms have created a mass application of tactics that aren’t meant to be mass applied to every fire we go to. Just because it’s a thing, doesn’t mean you should do it. The role of acronyms in any setting (educational, professional, firefighting, etc.) is to help aid a person in remembering a specific process.
What this fire service needs is the revival of the thinking fireman and the “pass it on” aspect of the senior man. After speaking with a mentor of mine this past weekend (an engine company officer at a fairly large Florida fire department),it was his assertion that the blue collar roots of this profession need to be placed at a higher value, to which I totally agree. This doesn’t mean we should not attempt to gain higher education, it just means that our priorities should be focused on having a workforce that is highly proficient at the basics before anything else. One example of a “system failure” is that we still have firefighters who are unable to operate a 2.5″ line due to poor education, technique, and line management. This is unacceptable. We need to boost the levels of department training, not to satisfy ISO, but to create and breed a culture of firefighters who are confident in their skills, abilities, and fellow firefighters in order to best protect the community as a whole.
If your department places their first priority on anything other than the people you are sworn to protect, I encourage you to start asking questions and help change the culture. “Me first” has never been the motto of the fire service, and I’ll be damned to see it happen.
– Zach Schleiffer
As most of you have probably heard, there is growing evidence that the death of a Virginia female firefighter may be the result, in part, of bullying by fellow firefighters.
If that turns out to be true, then it is scary, sad, and shameful to all who bullied her and the profession. There is no reason for it! If it turns out not to be the case, we should not dismiss the subject. Instead, we should have a very clear and lengthy dialogue about the subject of bullying and the treatment of, not only to females but anyone who doesn’t fit the “mold” in our department.
As a former Fire Chief, I ask myself, “Why does it have to be that way?” I have witnessed first hand what female firefighters go through, and I took swift action in cases involving my department. However, I have close friends that are female firefighters, and I hear about the terrible things they go through. They continue to be bullied or simply treated much differently because they aren’t male. It’s absurd, and needs to be addressed. The problem in most situations is that the department leaders are part of the problem or that are too inept as leaders to handle it. The leadership in a lot of departments are part of the “old order” in that they think a female’s place is to be an auxiliary member, a supporting member, a secretary or in the kitchen making sandwiches. They don’t believe or understand that female firefighters are capable of doing this job and doing it well!
An article by CBC News Canada notes that almost every female firefighter in Canada has been bullied in some form or fashion. I would argue that the same goes for the U.S. The opportunity for this type of situation to happen is staggering, and it needs to be addressed at all levels. Verbal or sexual abuse/harassment and hazing are just a few of the most unprofessional forms of mistreatment that are found in the fire service. Why, if we are the professional firefighters or leaders in the community, should we even consider putting up with that type of activity? Are we turning a blind eye to it like we do other things? Are we saying that it’s not our problem? Or are we telling ourselves that it’s not happening or won’t happen in our department? All of those things may help you sleep at night but they are the coward’s way of handling the problem, and they will not promote any real progress on the issue.
So what can we do? Let’s mull over a few things and see where it takes us:
- Promote a dialogue: Your female firefighters may feel that they are unable to talk to you directly because issues should be brought up the chain of command. This issue is of such great importance that it needs to be addressed by you directly. Keep in mind that some of your command staff may be part of the problems, so give your firefighters an opportunity to bring their issue to you.
- Give them some immunity: Your female firefighters should not have any fear of retaliation or disciplinary action for revealing to you that they are getting harassed. They need to know they can count on you to help them, just like you would help one of their brother firefighters.
- Know when to remove yourself: If you are part of the problem then give them an avenue to talk to your boss. You were man enough to be part of the problem, so take what is coming to you. If you are that worried about your career, then you shouldn’t have been a part of the harassment in the first place. Real leaders recognize that they have made a mistake and deal with the consequences. If you are protecting the harassers, then you need to go down with them. You are a cancer on this great profession that needs to be removed.
- Support them as much as you can: When a female firefighter comes to you with a harassment complaint, give them all of the support they need. They may feel like they are on their own and them knowing that they have at least one person in their corner gives them the courage to fight for what is right.
- Make their options clear to them: Make sure they know what steps they need to take to bring a resolution to their situation. Most agencies have a policy for harassment, so make sure they clearly understand what that policy is and how to make their way through it. Make sure all the proper steps are followed. You don’t want to be the reason there was a failure to resolve their issue. You should know the policy better than anyone.
- Don’t judge and don’t be an a**hole: The issue they bring to you is very real. Try to look at it from their perspective and try to understand what they are feeling. The issue at hand may seem trivial to you, but it is important to them. Don’t be condescending or tell them to, “Suck it up; that’s the way it is in the firehouse!” They are most likely describing the tip of an iceberg in your department. If you investigate, you may find that you have a much bigger problem. If your first instinct is to try to hide your findings or dismiss the issue, then you should resign immediately because you don’t deserve to hold the position you have in one of the greatest professions on earth, you COWARD!
- Be the face of change: If you find yourself and your department in the midst of a bullying issue, be a true agent of change. Take all of the steps necessary to fix the problem. That may mean that you need to take disciplinary action against or terminate your “buddies”, but you need to do what the taxpayers pay you to do. It is YOUR responsibility to make it right! NO MATTER WHAT THE COST!
One of my favorite Lieutenants was a female. She taught me a great deal about this job and how to do it well. She was a role model of how to be a good leader. We had many discussions about being a female in a male-dominated profession. She didn’t take any crap from anyone and admitted that it was never easy. “Sometimes you need to be more of a man than they are,” she would say. I found it humorous at the time, but it made sense. She had to teach quite a few firefighters how to be men and how to do this job. She knew that some of them were scared to work with her. She would show them that the job could be done and how to follow a female leader.
I am sure that most of you know a female firefighter and have heard about what they go through. Someone very close to me is a female firefighter, and she has dealt with harassment for many years. Most of her department leaders have brushed off her complaints as “business as usual” in the fire service. Subsequently, she is looking to leave this line of work. She is tired of the macho neanderthals treating her like a second-class citizen even after she has proven herself to be a good (if not better than they are) firefighter. It is sad to see it happen because she had a real passion for the job that got snuffed out by weak Chiefs or department leaders who didn’t have the stones to take on the problem. I wonder how many other great firefighters have given up and left the business because of bullying.
So what are your thoughts? Do you have the ability to see a problem and fix it in your department or are you among those who take the cowards way out and ignore it?
Talk to your female firefighters about bullying. You will be surprised what you hear!
I was recently granted the opportunity to help instruct a forcible entry class for the new recruits at our fire academy. After a long eight hour day of teaching hands-on skills and answering questions, I was picking up equipment when I was presented with the hardest question of the day from a student. One of the new guys approached me and asked, “What does it take to be successful?” At first, I was flattered, I must have laid it on thick and sounded like I knew what I was saying if he is asking ME this question. As I was composing a reply that was just short of genius, it hit me; I didn’t have an answer.
You’ve likely seen the compelling artwork, created by Artist and Firefighter Paramedic (FF/P) Daniel Sundahl, popping up in your Facebook newsfeed, Instagram, and relevant articles over the last year or more. Sundahl’s images convey a strong visual message highlighting the individual conflicts faced by emergency responders as they serve the needs of humanity. When the chaos of a bloody scene has settled or when the fire has been extinguished, responders are often left to wrestle with their own thoughts and feelings in
private moments of deep reflection. Every minute of every day, emergency responders around the world respond to and mitigate emergency situations based in the intense reality of raw mortality.
In his new book, Portraits of an Emergency, FF/P Daniel Sundahl has found an artistic way of depicting these powerful moments of reflection allowing other responders to connect and communicate their mental and emotion challenges, as well as providing outsiders the opportunity to begin to understand the inner struggle of their public servants.
While making your way through the book, you immediately begin to feel the soul of the artist, and if you’re a responder, you suddenly find yourself identifying with the images and their accompanying stories. The artistic renderings of photos taken by Sundahl shine a bright ghostly light onto the moment’s that create Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in emergency responders, putting this important issue on Front Street.
In the last year or two, there has been a meaningful conversation within the fire service regarding suicide and the propensity and effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in first responders. Daniel Sundahl puts himself out on the forefront of creating PTSD awareness industry-wide by capturing his own struggles and confidently breaking macho stereotypes. Portraits of an Emergency is a powerful walk through Sundahl’s own difficult realization of PTSD and his answer for how to face it and heal.
By sharing his artwork with the emergency service community, Sundahl is giving himself an outlet that helps him reconcile his internal conflicts with PTSD while providing thought-provoking images for emergency responders to reflect on their own mental and emotional well-being.
Portraits of an Emergency is a must have for every firehouse dayroom, EMS station break room, 911 dispatch center restroom, or police station ready room. Aside from raising the level of awareness concerning PTSD among first responders, the book provides emergency service leaders, company officers, and chiefs a casual, edgy, ice-breaker to approaching the topic of PTSD with their workforce.
We all know firefighters, and first responders don’t enjoy discussing their possible weaknesses. PTSD can be a scary and uncertain disorder. Firefighters and emergency workers will often hide their symptoms fearing for their career or harbor the idea of becoming an outcast among their peers for being weak or unstable. It’s imperative for first responders to realize that PTSD isn’t about what’s wrong with them, it’s about what happened to them, Sundahl’s images highlight that sentiment exactly. The photo renderings in Portraits of an Emergency helps to start the conversation and allow Chief’s and leaders to provide avenues for assistance. Part of Sundahl’s purpose for this book, which is a first of it’s kind, is to help prevent firefighter and emergency responder suicides. It’s an important issue in our career field and often addressed passively.
As first responders, we often live our lives wondering if we’ve made enough of an impact or if we’ve made a difference. Firefighter Paramedic Daniel Sundahl doesn’t have this problem. By placing his talent and his personal struggles in the forefront of his new book, Sundahl is providing PTSD awareness with the goal of first responder suicide prevention for the benefit of us all. Daniel Sundahl with DanSun Photo Art and his first book Portraits of an Emergency is leaving his mark on the fire and emergency services. Sundahl’s photo art will likely become a powerfully poignant staple of the emergency service industry worldwide.
Order your station a copy of Portraits of an Emergency (Here)
My Brothers…. I try to give you something every shift I work. This week I’ve been thinking about MY fire service…. Yeah, it’s mine. I’ve given 15 years of blood, sweat, tears to this great service. It isn’t a job; it isn’t a career. It is who you are; it’s what you think about on your days off. I spend my four days waiting to get back to the station with my friends.
This field is so much more than any other job. There is a place for all of us. You can find your path in any of the multiple services we provide. We provide help. That is the simplest breakdown of what we do. Hazmat, fire, rescue, and EMS; someone has called 911 because the situation is out of their control. You don’t have to love it all, just show me the passion for it.
My fire service is passionate. We don’t have to be dedicated to the same specialty areas, however, as a group, we can answer any call. We speak with excitement about the fire service. We immerse ourselves into our craft. If you are here just to take selfies and tell the girls you’re a fireman, you have failed.
My fire service is prepared. A wise man once said, “We save a life every shift.” Does that mean I am the baddest mother you’ve met, and I happen to work at the busiest station known to man?… No. But every training I perform is what I will fall back on to the day that I need to make that save. We pull lines; we throw ladders; we search. If you don’t give a shit about training, you have failed.
My fire service is strong. Do I work with powerlifting record holders?.. Well yes, but our strength is simpler than that. It’s a simple fact that if I go down inside, I have no question that my guys have the physical ability to get my ass out. If this isn’t the case either, you’re too fat or your crew is too weak. If so, you have failed.
My fire service is a brotherhood. We spend time together. We are defined not as individuals but as a group. On duty, we eat together, train together, spend downtime together. Off duty, we are in constant contact. We know what is going on in each other’s personal lives. If you only are a “shift” when you are at work and don’t have contact with your crew until you come back to the station, you have failed.
If you haven’t failed, thank you. YOU are MY fire service. I hope to meet you sometime in the future. I call you my brothers.
If you have failed, leave. You are a poser in my fire service. These things can’t be taught, and honestly, we will find you sooner than you think. It is unfair that you are filling a position without passion. As you leave, I will give you a plastic helmet, a temporary tattoo, and sticker badge so that you can still take those selfies.