I am going to start this article off with a minor disclaimer before we get into the meat of the post.
First, yes, I said meat…and this is not going to be anything about fire department-related decals. For all you Ricky Rescue whacker-babies, I apologize.
Memorial stickers, roadside crosses adorned with flowers, wreaths, bears and any other sort of roadside memorial markers are seen all over the place by passers-by. Literally coast to coast, city streets, major highways and winding dirt roads have something that people use to get a little closer, and there is nothing wrong with it.
What people outside emergency services don’t know or consider is what that scene looked like before it was cleaned up enough to open the roadway back up. What the cars looked like just after the wreck. What the scene was like when we were inside the cars, trying to save a life.
What that scene looks like inside our minds every time we pass one of those roadside reminders.
In and around the city I currently work for, there are three different memorial decals that the locals have for three separate incidents that I just so have happened to have been called to. These three wrecks stand out to me because of the nature of each call. All three scenes involved a fatality or multiple fatalities and all have permanently scarred my mind. I literally see those stickers daily. Is it wrong of the owner to have them? Of course not. Do they, would they or should they understand why I cringe when I look up and read a name or see a date? Again, of course not. It’s my job. I signed up for this.
As I mentioned in my article “Ghosts,” I had made a decision on one of those fatality calls that could have jeopardized my career, and not only that, the quality of life of a patient that lived in the same passenger compartment. I have since handled that ghost. It comes back every time I drive down that street or see one of the window decals. Another decal I regularly see is usually in the morning when I drop my son off at school. The people ahead of me don’t know me from Adam, and in fact, I don’t know them. But I do know the names on their back window. I go back to that cold, muddy morning. A splintered telephone pole, air bags deployed, crushed metal and that smell…
We ALL know about it. I can smell it every time I see those names.
The crosses I see along the two most highly-traveled highways around have multiple crosses/memorials laid out at locations that I can remember the scene. I can remember the rubble and devastation that had occurred just moments before our arrival.
There are 2-3 along the highway while traveling one direction and a few more while coming back. One location the patient was not from here, and it’s obvious by the condition of the cross as it was placed some six years ago. That guy was ejected, pinned under the vehicle and had a limb entrapped between a passenger door and the “B” post. The entire scene was on top of an ant bed.
Another set, yes “set”, of crosses sit at a railroad intersection in the response area of my first volunteer department. I make it a point to go by there once a year or so.
I can picture all those faces like it happened yesterday, and that wreck was nearly ten years ago. I get a vacant look on my face; I can almost feel it. My mind races back to the incident that memorial was dedicated for. I relive it for a few seconds, and I drag my brain back to whatever it was I was doing.
Am I any different than any of the firefighters reading this right now?
NOT AT ALL!!!
My ghosts do not affect my day to day. Generally speaking, I have pretty good control. My situation is more of a traumatic scene observation more than a direct traumatic experience towards me. I speak a little more openly about it than most firefighters I know, and that scares me. I’m scared for them.
We all have ghosts, skeletons, and demons. We all have scenes in our minds of calls that we cannot ever forget. You know what? It is completely OK to handle your mental health however you see fit within healthy and legal limitations, of course.
I have handled my ghosts, and I handle them every day. One call specifically, I have not gone a day without seeing that kid’s face, and I have dealt with it in my own way. I have reached out to a mentor. I have stress outlets in my life, and I know for a fact that I have a support team if I ever need one. A few days after the incident, I was speaking with a mentor about it on duty. I had to get it off my chest. Right in the middle of the conversation the bells rang for an ambulance call. I had fallen, and I had gotten back on my horse.
Just like you do!
We are here for each other.
First responder mental heath and suicide is something I refuse to take lightly. I’ve known people that have taken their lives because of the things they couldn’t get out of their heads.
They didn’t ask for help.
Below is a link for two of our already published articles. Also, below is the website and a suicide prevention phone number directed specifically for first responders.
Just mentioning the words Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD probably has you running for the hills right now but trust me, it doesn’t have to be a scary subject. Every firefighter in this world is willing to take on any risk to save another person’s life. Sometimes that risk means witnessing or engaging in a crisis that would be unthinkable for the average Joe on the street to handle. You jump in on someone’s worst day of his or her life and at times risk your life for the sake of theirs. With that said, sad to say it, but that means you have witnessed a traumatic event. When you witness a traumatic event, it puts you at risk for developing PTSD. It puts you at greater risk to develop PTSD when you continuously witness traumatic events. It probably sounds a lot like your day-to-day life as a firefighter, endlessly witnessing trauma.
There is such limited information out there to let you know what the stats say about PTSD amongst firefighters. The most consistent, predicted number out there says that about 37% of firefighters show signs or symptoms of PTSD. You would think that number would be higher since it is pretty safe to say that 100% of you witness at least one traumatic event throughout the course of your career. You’re probably laughing right now because that number is probably way higher than one.
Whether it was by choice or by chance, the way that a firehouse is set up, and the way that your schedule works is a protective factor that reduces your risk to develop PTSD. Protective factors are a fancy way of saying that there is something in place that helps you reduce the risk of developing PTSD. Psychologists, actually let’s call them head docs; they had to develop a fancy way to say it that sounded smart. It looks better in our field when we sound smart.
So let’s look at what these protective factors are and how you can rely on them to process through any traumatic event that you might come across. Because let’s face it, the next alarm that goes off could lead you right into someone’s worst day and your next call might be the one that is hard to forget. Your next call might be the one that plays over and over in your mind. Your next call might be the one that wakes you up at night in a pool of sweat. You never know what the next call is.
So what about these protective factors makes the risk of PTSD lower for firefighters? The fact that you live in the firehouse with the same people that are going through the same trauma with you, that in itself allows you to process events in a healthy way. You are side by side with the same people day in and day out, and they are someone with whom you can relate. You eat, sleep, shower, and who knows what else goes on in there but regardless, you do this with one another. If you were to experience an incident and then immediately return home to your family, it would make it harder to process it fully and effectively because they didn’t live the incident with you. The other protective factor is your schedule, as much as your wife, girlfriend, partner, might hate your schedule, it is a protective factor. When you work these long hours, it means that your support system is right there with you and that helps.
I know many of you think that you are invincible but even though you aren’t the average Joe, you still breathe and bleed just as they do. So just because these protective factors are in place, doesn’t mean you are invincible to developing PTSD. You should know the warning signs and talk to someone about it. Really quick. Here are some down and dirty signs to look for: If you are experiencing panic attacks, feeling numb towards emotions, difficulty concentrating, frequent nightmares, feeling extra stress or anxiousness, flashbacks to the event that feel real, or even memory loss, you might need to find someone to talk to about it. These are just some quick signs that should trigger you to dig a little deeper and see if everything is alright.
So turning to someone for help doesn’t mean you are weak, it means you are human. If you think things don’t feel right, you should listen to your body and talk to someone. At the end of the day, the world needs you and needs you to take care of yourself.