What makes us fit for duty? Training.
What training are we referring to? Tasks used to perform our job. Whether it be a technical rescue, hazmat knowledge, ARFF, district familiarization or countless other avenues, as firefighters we are called upon to know an extremely wide range of skills to perform our duties and go home at the end of our shifts.
While this knowledge is part of the necessary tools needed to perform, almost half of our brothers and sisters who pay the ultimate price do so because of overexertion. When called upon to fight fires, it takes an enormous amount of physical exertion to do our job, yet we aren’t physically training for the arduous tasks we will probably encounter.
That’s where Firefit Firefighter Fitness Trainer comes in. This machine mimics the most strenuous of fireground activities in a compact unit that will fit in the corner of most fire station truck rooms. In some cases, departments are replacing the cumbersome entrance exam equipment with Firefit. It’s turn key, requires virtually no set up and is modeled after the CPAT, with a couple of exceptions of course. Just drag the machine from the truck room to the station apron, or use it inside if you have the space for it.
Firefit was created and tested by Randy Johnson, a 14 yr firefighter in the Texas Panhandle, 13 of those as a career firefighter. His personal results while doing a six-week testing program were nothing short of phenomenal. Starting with his heart rate, Day 1 resting heart rate was 66, working HR in the 180’s and recovery time to resting was 14 minutes. His body fat was 22%. Weight was 202. After six weeks using Firefit as his only training, and only on duty for a total usage of 15 times, his HR was in the 150’s during the workout; recovery time dropped to 4.5 minutes! Randy lost 7 lbs, gained back 2 (probably muscle), and lost 4% bodyfat.
While these results are amazing in themselves, the reason for the creation of Firefit, according to Randy, is to reduce the number of names we put on the wall in Colorado Springs and Emmitsburg every September and October, respectively. After all, isn’t that the goal and why we train to be the best at what we do?
What is anxiety?
Anxiety can come from any situation or thought that makes you feel frustrated, angry, or during a time you feel you have no control of the situation. Anxiety is a feeling of apprehension, nervousness, or fear. The source of this uneasiness is not always known or recognized, which can add to the distress you feel. People with anxiety disorders frequently have intense, excessive and persistent worry and fear about everyday situations.
Having anxiety is a normal part of life. However, too much is harmful. It can be debilitating and get in the way of everyday life. Continued high levels of anxiety can set you up for general poor health, as well as physical and psychological illnesses like infection, heart disease, and depression. It can lead to unhealthy behaviors to help self medicate like overeating and abuse of alcohol or drugs.
What are the symptoms?
- Abdominal pain (this may be the only symptom of anxiety, especially in a child)
- Diarrhea or frequent need to urinate
- Dry mouth or difficulty swallowing
- Muscle tension
- Rapid breathing
- Rapid or irregular heart rate
- Twitching or trembling
- Sometimes other symptoms occur with anxiety:
- Decreased concentration
- Irritability, including loss of your temper
- Sexual problems
- Sleeping difficulties, including nightmares
More severe symptoms that may need immediate treatment:
- You have crushing chest pain, especially with shortness of breath, dizziness, or sweating.
- These symptoms might be caused by a heart attack, which can also cause feelings of anxiety.
- You have thoughts of suicide.
- Call your health care provider if you have dizziness, rapid breathing, or a racing heartbeat for the first time, or if it is worse than usual.
- You are unable to work or function properly at home because of anxiety or other symptoms.
- You do not know the source or cause of your anxiety.
- You have a sudden feeling of panic.
- You have an uncontrollable fear — for example, of getting infected and sick if you are out, or a fear of heights.
- Your anxiety is triggered by the memory of a traumatic event (See PTSD).
- You have tried self care for several weeks without success, or you feel that your anxiety will not go away without professional help.
- Changes to you environment or day to day life
- Both positive and negative changes can cause anxiety
- Relationship issues
- Certain drugs, both recreational and medicinal, can lead to symptoms of anxiety due to either side effects or withdrawal from the drug.
Such drugs include:
- ADHD medications, especially amphetamines
- Benzodiazepines (during withdrawal)
- Bronchodilators (for asthma and certain other breathing disorders)
- Cold remedies
- Diet pills
- Thyroid medications
- A poor diet — for example, low levels of vitamin B12 — can also contribute to stress or anxiety. In very rare cases, a tumor of the adrenal gland (pheochromocytoma) may cause anxiety or stress-like symptoms. The symptoms are caused by an overproduction of hormones responsible for the feelings of anxiety.
The most effective solution is to find and address the source of your stress or anxiety. This can be difficult, because the cause of the anxiety may not be conscious. A first step is to take an inventory of what you think might be making you “stressed out,” trying to be as honest with yourself as possible:
- What do you worry about most?
- Is something constantly on your mind?
- Is there something that you fear will happen?
- Does anything in particular make you sad or depressed?
- Keep a diary of the experiences and thoughts that seem to be related to your anxiety. Are your thoughts adding to your anxietyin these situations?
Then, find someone you trust (friend, family member, neighbor, clergy) who will listen to you. Often, just talking to a friend or loved one is all that you need to relieve anxiety.
Contacting on of the Peer Support Team members is always an option. Also, most communities also have support groups and hotlines that can help. Social workers, psychologists, and psychiatrists can be very effective in helping you reduce anxiety through therapy or medication.
Also, find healthy lifestyle choices to help you cope with the stress and anxiety. For example:
- Eat a well-balanced, healthy diet. Don’t overeat.
- Exercise regularly.
- Find self-help books at your local library or bookstore.
- Get enough sleep.
- Learn and practice relaxation techniques like guided imagery, progressive muscle relaxation, yoga, tai chi, or meditation.
- Limit caffeine and alcohol.
- Take breaks from work. Make sure to balance fun activities with your responsibilities. Spend time with people you enjoy.
- Pick up a hobby that you used to enjoy.
What to expect your doctor to ask:
- When did your feelings of stress, tension, or anxiety begin? Do you attribute the feelings to anything in particular, like an event in your life or a circumstance that scares you?
- Do you have physical symptoms along with your feelings of anxiety? What are they?
- Does anything make your anxiety better?
- Does anything make your anxiety worse?
- What medications are you taking?
- Do you use alcohol or drugs?
Anxiety and Distress
Use the following personal assessments to determine your risk for anxiety and distress.
What is resiliency?
One of the most important aspects of a firefighter’s life and mental health is resiliency. Resilience is often defined as one’s ability to bounce back from setbacks and to properly adapt to stressful situations. Resiliency is so important to us all because no one is immune to stress whether it’s daily irritants or major life-altering events.
Building resilience takes time. In order to help improve resiliency make sure to get enough sleep, exercise, and practice on thought awareness. Being more optimistic and seeing the glass half full in the long run will help change the way you think about negative or stressful events. If we improve the health and happiness in our individuals and workforce as a whole, then we will produce a higher performance overall.
Building resiliency is important for the following reasons:
- It protects against heart disease (the #1 killer of firefighters!)
- Potentially increase life expectancy by up to a decade
- Inoculates against daily hassles and life altering events
- Improves job satisfaction and productivity
- Boosts your immune response
- You’re at lower risk for injuries and pain, including headaches
- Lowers risk of alcohol and dependency
Four pillars of resilience:
- Mental toughness
- Social connectivity
- Mind body “muscle memory”
- sparking positive emotions
Tactical breathing is used to gain control over physical and psychological responses to stress. Through practice one can gain control over heart rate, oxygen intake and emotions to increase concentration in various situation. Please see the link below for more information.
You know, this started out as a Facebook status, but I…I had to keep writing and adding to it.
You see, today (Monday 9/12/16 – the day after the 15 year anniversary of the twin tower attacks) I’m in the weight room. I’m cracked out on pre-workout, doing chest day. Slamming weight in silence; no headphones, no TV. Nothing. Just the weight.
Today, I have a lot on my mind. And I mean a lot.
This weekend I met firefighters from around the globe, I met rookies and chiefs. I met FDNY firemen. I met pipers and drummers.
Let me back up, Saturday the 10th was my 31st birthday. I also did the 911 Memorial Stair Climb in Dallas that day. That’s when my mind started this post.
On Sunday, I met Jeff Cool, FDNY “Black Sunday” survivor. I met John Walters, FDNY 9/11/01 survivor. I scaled another 110 floor stair climb in Ft Worth that was open to firefighters and anybody wanting to climb for a fallen military member or first responder.
Today, before I came to the gym, I learned of a fireman from my department that was a career fireman, and currently a volunteer, is in grave condition due to cancer.
This is where my mind is at; if you’re still here reading this, then thank you. I’m getting to the point soon, I promise.
There are millions of motivational fitness and fire service training quotes, articles, and pictures out there, but for firemen, there are two that I can think of.
One: Get fit and train for the people you serve.
Two: Get fit and train for the people that would do ANYTHING to be able to walk in your shoes again.
We owe it to the men and women in and out of the fire service to be as selfless as possible.
The fire service has never been about self, nor should it be, in my opinion. People asked, “Why are you doing two climbs? You’re crazy!”
I didn’t do it for me. I did it for those who can’t. I took names to the top of those towers that are deceased FDNY firefighters. I took names and memories of friends and family that are deceased or not physically able to climb.
A good friend’s father passed away awhile back, I wore his name on my helmet. I brought up memories of his pride in his son and his friendliness towards me in my heart. There’s many others that where in my heart as well. My grandfathers, grandmothers and so on…
The team from my dept took OUR (ownership…different article for another day) department name to the top in Dallas, while our department, short staffed, took a beating from 911 calls at home.
Sometimes we have to beat the hell out of our own bodies while we have the ability to do-so. We should do it for the people that’d love to be healthy enough to do it too.
Plan for you, so we can plan for them.
Compartmentalization. It’s a big word, with huge meaning, bigger consequences and a humongous impact on our community. Now do me a favor and pump the brakes for a minute. First and foremost, emotional trauma and our day-to- day stressors pile up. They get us individually and can impact the department’s we serve. There’s a whole lot of cultural change happening right now in the fire service.
Who am I kidding? It’s built on change – but one thing undoubtedly remains the same. The calls keep coming in, and we keep going out. We drop our tools, meals, and jokes in the house and leave them behind to go out the door to help someone else. It’s what we do, and we do it pretty well as a service. Gordon Graham once said, “Whatever you’re doing, do it well and get it done.” I find this to be quite true regardless of the emotional weights we carry every day with us.
The big question on my mind, and hopefully yours, is who is watching your back? I have concluded that I have learned a lot from several people that influence me in my career; some of which are my dad, my peers, and the probies that have come after me.
Just from my experience, the calls stack up and will get you at some point. Your reason might be different than mine, but stay with me for a second and make your own analogy. For me, it was one call that did it and like many of you, I didn’t know it at the time.
To paint the picture for you, the call summed up was as such; two-vehicle accident, multiple entrapped, three kids ejected, and there were three of us on the first due – and we were it…for 10 minutes.
We all have this call. It got me six months down the road one day when I saw one of the kids at the grocery store. I talked to my old man about it. He’s been in the service for 35+ years now, and he leveled his call with me. The canvas for his looked like this; single-wide trailer, fire blowing out hard upon arrival. He was on the first due engine which arrived directly after the Battalion Chief dispatched. They stretched a line, forced the door, and then found a family of five stacked up directly behind that door. The crew let the BC know over the radio, who said something along the lines of, “We ain’t fighting no fires today, everyone come forward to do CPR.”
There were three kids in the family…one of them looked exactly like me.
We all have this call. It got my dad the next morning when he saw me coming off shift. All of us have a duty to ensure that everyone on our shift goes home. Making a point about that to the next generation is absolutely necessary, and talking about the stressors, trauma, or your “call” to the current generation is just as important. What I want you to do now is ask yourself if you have someone to talk to. Then ask yourself who your buddy has to talk to. Then ask yourself who the probie has to talk to. It is important to have someone you can call at midnight because something’s bothering you. It’s important to be open about it with yourself as well. Find yourself that battle buddy and make sure that everyone on your crew, young and old, has one.
Now back in my day, we still had dogs in the house for the horses, and so, the firehouse dog was born and brought into the fire service. What I’m about to say, I understand, that there are departments that have policies against dogs in the station, however, I’m just giving you another tool in the toolbox. Studies have overwhelmingly shown that what we do is stressful, and takes the cake as the most stressful job out there. Studies have also shown that spending time with dogs reduces stress levels on a physical and mental scale. I want you to think about introducing a furry friend to the family, maybe not a station dog, but one that you and your crew can all see together on a fairly regular basis. I find that it helps me get through the day-to-day things that pile up on me.
It is my hope that in reading this, it might help you too. So next time you sit down after calls with your crew, and a cup of coffee in hand, bring a furry friend to hangout with and let them watch your back for a change.
Many of us are social people; we are a family, as you very well know. Day-to-day we tend to compartmentalize, though. The little things build up and can knock us off our game. My hope is that by being open and having a plan in place for ourselves, we will be prepared for when the little things have piled too high or “that call” hits you. In my mind, it’s just one logical thing to do to keep us a little bit sane. Think about it, talk to your crew, and make a difference for them and you.
After all, I am here for we, and we are here for them. Bump up and plan.
– Lt. Will “Grandpa” Parry
– State of Alaska
At 0846 Tuesday September 11th, the United States took a hit on the north tower of the World Trade Center. At 0903 a second passenger airliner slammed into the south tower.
The Battalion Chief assigned to Battalion 1 witnessed the impact of the plane from the corner of Church and Lispenard Streets. He immediately signaled a second alarm and proceeded to the World Trade Center. En route, B1 requested additional resources by transmitting a third alarm at 8:48 a.m.
I was driving to school for the first time, the attacks happened the day after my 16th birthday. Anybody that has followed me personally on Station Pride knows I’m 4th generation. I was born into this. I’m bred to help people. Even as early as 1995 when I was 9 years old, I could feel the urge to help the victims of the Oklahoma City Federal Building bombing. I’ve had the desire to serve my entire life it feels like.
My story isn’t much different than many firefighters around the world. Almost all firefighters know when that switch flipped, they remember when they made that decision to pursue what I personally believe is the greatest career there is.
We watched TV the whole day at school on 9/11. I witnessed on national TV as the second plane turned and slammed into the building. It wasn’t until 2005 that my fire service career started, and when it started I was in the generation of firefighters that were labeled the “post 9/11 firefighters”. That label has driven me for years, to prove throughout my career thus far that I am in this for more than the firefighter title. I did not start this career to get the attention we all saw the FDNY receive after they lost so many brothers in one single incident. It has driven and motivated me for 10 years now.
In 2013 I found and decided to attempt the Dallas 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb. 110 floors, full gear and SCBA. Climbing with 343 firefighters, 70 police officers. It’s a humbling experience too because no matter how prepared you think are, it’s not enough. The stair climb starts early in the morning. Participants get to the staging area early, get signed in and then get unto their groups. It’s eerie quiet at first, at the base of the 55 floor building we’ll be climbing. As the crowd grows we all begin to either relax or our nerves make us start to get “loose” meeting fellow brother and sisters. A little closer to start time we dress in our gear, just like we do day in and day out but this time it’s different. This time it’s for a cause and it’s emotional. When it’s time we walk out of the staging area. We gather in the street at the base of the building and we listen to speakers, we pray, we say the pledge. We wave and take pictures. Then it starts.
The goosebumps hit, the nerves in your gut get a little worse and your eyes get a little wet. The group piles into a line, we circle in front of the stage the speakers were just on, make a left and then we have an opportunity to lay a hand on a piece of red iron from one of the towers. That water in your eyes get a little thicker, there’s a ball in your throat fighting for space with your heart in the same place, the pipes and drums still playing, right next to you. You can feel the drums in your chest.
As you pass the red iron from the tower you enter the building. That’s the last time most of the people there to support “their firefighter” will see them until the end. That’s when it hits you that you aren’t doing this for you, your climbing because they climbed. FDNY firefighters climbed and climbed, floor after floor helping people out of those towers. Climbing further to reach the floors in which they had no idea if there were survivors or not. Without hesitation and unselfishly they climbed. Knowing full well the dangers, knowing the structural integrity has been greatly reduced. They climbed to help people they have never met before, and may never see again after a few moments in a stairwell. They climbed to their death, doing a job that is in the heart of every firefighter.
“We climb because they climbed.”
It is estimated (here) that 50% of marriages in the fire service industry lead to divorce. That statistic is pretty high. The dream of being in a relationship with a firefighter sounds pretty glamorous. Sharing a bed with this tough, good looking, risk taker firefighter appears pretty amazing until reality sets in that is. The reality of that life is quite the opposite and that firefighter is now replaced with a body pillow because you spend more nights sleeping at the station than you do at home and when you are home you are most likely exhausted because of interrupted sleep or haunted by calls. Not quite as glamorous after all.
What makes so many marriages fail?
There is a lot that can cause a marriage to break up and being a firefighter adds a whole new layer of potential issues. Picture this, you come home from a long 48 hour shift at the fire station and hear your partner’s question, ‘How was work?”. Your past 48 hours have been pretty brutal with calls. If you are being honest, you don’t really want to answer this question because work absolutely sucked and it was absolutely everything that cannot be explained to someone that wasn’t there. So you answer with the word, “fine” and just want to find your bed or recliner and collapse in it for a bit or throw yourself into a hobby to try to forget about it all. You know the word “fine” never means fine and often leaves your partner feeling neglected or left out of your life. This response can have some pretty hefty consequences when it comes to building and maintaining your relationships outside of the station.
How do you find a way to talk to those that you love about the work that you love?
Let’s face it, there are just some calls that you can’t talk to your partner about if they weren’t there and sometimes you probably shouldn’t talk to them about it. It actually isn’t healthy for your partner to be aware of every call because it can cause sleepless nights worrying about situations that are out of their control. Sometimes it is best that they don’t know everything but they do need to know some things. They need to be a part of your life outside of the home.
Your life as a firefighter is not just a career; it is a lifestyle so if you don’t find a way to incorporate your partner into that lifestyle it could lead to problems. So how do you include them in your firefighter life but also limit it at the same time? It is more about finding ways to connect instead of just finding better ways to communicate. Being able to connect to your partner is vital.
You need to find what you can talk to your partner about. Ask yourself what parts of your day can you talk about without making it just sound like sunshine and roses? Your partner will know if you are only giving them the good parts of your day. You can talk about a routine call and pull out some detail of significance that can help your partner feel connected to what you do.
What if I don’t want to talk about my day?
You can tell them you had a pretty horrific call and you feel pretty crappy and can’t bring yourself to talk about it right now. Let them know that you care enough to inform them that something is bothering you but that you just need some time to move past it. Here is a quick statement you can make, “I had a pretty rough call last night, we talked it through a lot at the station and right now I just want to try to forget about it and be thankful that I am home spending time with my family.” Sometimes you may want to talk to about it though, so take advantage of those times and talk to your partner about what is on your mind and how you are feeling.
Bottom line though, those bad calls are going to happen, the sleepless nights are going to happen, and your work is not going to change. On the upside though, by nature you are problem solvers, fixers, doers and risk takers and you can bring this into your personal life. So let’s look at what you can do to make your relationships at home just as strong as the ones with the firefighters at the station.
It’s about connection, not just communication.
Find new ways to connect when you do have time together. Instead of looking at ways to communicate about everything, find better ways to connect with your partner. Connecting with one another will lead to better communication in the long run.
You also spend a lot of time apart so take advantage of that and let your partner know you are thinking about them when you can. Start small, just text your partner and let them know you are thinking about them while you are at work. It doesn’t need to be this long conversation because they should understand that you are busy and that might not be possible. However, if you have the chance to let them know you are thinking about them, do it. Keeping connected as much as possible goes a long way.
Not only is it important to let your partner know you are thinking about them when you aren’t together but spend quality time together when you are together. Schedule date nights at least once a month and get away for a few hours together to recharge and reconnect. Learn something new or take a class together. Learning together helps couples to connect. So find a cooking class, or go zip lining, or take a work out class together. Find something that you haven’t done before and learn it together.
It is important for your relationships outside of work to be healthy to keep your mind focused when you are at work. The fact is your work and the bad calls won’t change. The potential for strain on a relationship is there but you have the ability to take control of your relationships and connect with your loved ones. So find new ways to connect but also understand that you are only one half of the problem and one half of the solution. If your partner is not open to connecting with new ways or things just feel like they are too far gone, then it might be time to seek out some help from a marriage counselor. A counselor can help look at your relationship from an outside perspective to see what might be causing the strain.
You don’t have to be one of the marriages that lead to divorce. Start with connecting and go from there.
For marriage resources and support Join the FirefighterWife and 24/7 Commitment
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.
We recently published an article that identified some of the protective factors that help reduce the risk of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in career firefighters (here) but what about the risk of PTSD with those of you that are volunteer firefighters?
The National Fire Protection Association reported that there were “approximately 1,140,750 firefighters in the U.S. in 2013. Of the total number of firefighters 354,600 (31%) were career firefighters and 786,150 (69%) were volunteer firefighters.” (NFPA, 2014).
That is a huge number of you that volunteer day in and day out to interrupt your normal life at work or home at a moment’s notice and jump at the call to help your community. How do you go from responding to a call one minute and then immediately go back to whatever it was you were doing before you raced to the fire station? Unless you found this magic on/off switch on your body somewhere, (if you did, you should patent that right away), you can’t just shut it all off and go back to your life as it was right before a difficult call.
Many small town America fire departments can sometimes barely afford the equipment you need just to function let alone fund the support you would need following a horrific call.
This one hits home for me because I can remember like it was yesterday hearing my father’s pager go off in the next room, alerting not only him but the entire family that there was a crisis in our small town that needing rescuing. I can still hear the front door slam shut and hear his footsteps pound the sidewalk as he started to run the block down the hill to the volunteer fire station. Each time that pager went off, the men that volunteered for our small town quickly tossed off their hat of being a construction worker, farmer, banker, and ran to put on a helmet and gear. You always knew that our volunteer fire department was out there saving the day when you saw all the haphazardly parked cars and trucks belonging to our firefighters scattered along the street downtown. They got to the station as fast as possibly, never knowing what crisis was awaiting them, never knowing if they were rushing to help a neighbor, a friend or even a family member.
So, you put your life on the line as a volunteer, and your community would feel your absence if you weren’t there, right? Why is there such limited information out there on how this drastically impacts your mental well-being?
It appears that there has been a total of two, that’s right two studies on the effects of trauma on volunteer firefighters. It took a grad student in Ontario, Canada to publish one of them in 2010. Brad Campbell, a Seguin Township resident, a graduate of the School of Social Work at Laurentian University, conducted a two-year study of nine volunteer firefighters to help figure out how big of a problem this really is. His thesis can’t even be found online to see what this 95-page book says because it is probably tucked away on some dusty library shelf in Ontario. The big take away from his two-year study was this: volunteer firefighting psychological trauma remains overlooked.
I don’t think that comes as a surprise to most of you. If you are interested in reading the super short article about that, you can find it here.
Sometimes it doesn’t just stop at PTSD either.
The effects of PTSD can lead to even bigger and more permanent problems, such as taking your own life.
The Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance (FBHA) is currently tracking the number of suicides each year for all firefighters, both volunteer, and career. Last year alone there were 112 suicides. Since the FBHA started tracking this information in 2012, there has been a total of 754 suicides.
We are talking about 754 avoidable firefighter deaths. Many of these suicides could have been prevented if there was help readily available, easily accessible, and perhaps even required. You can find more of this research at FBHA.
The reality here?
A volunteer firefighter has an increased chance of struggling with PTSD. It could be assumed that the volunteer has an even greater chance than that of a career firefighter because the protective factors are not in place as they are with career firefighters.
Now imagine responding to call where a teenager has been ejected from a vehicle, you are first one scene, and the teen is a mangled corpse. You place her human remains into a body bag, finish the call, and return home to wash the blood off your clothes just in time to enjoy dinner with your family and the 6:00 news.
This scenario, which is common among volunteer firefighters, highlights the need for intervention. Encourage your volunteer fire department to take the initiative for all their members. PTSD support should be a priority for every department.
PTSD isn’t about what’s wrong with you, it’s about what happened to you.
There are resources out there for volunteers. The National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) has teamed up with the American Addictions Center (AAC) to offer you and your family a free and confidential helpline. You can call 1-888-731-FIRE 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year. The person that answers the phone knows what you are going through, has been there, and has the resources to help you. You can also access more help, training, and resources for not only you but your entire department by visiting http://www.nvfc.org/.
There are a lot of you out there. Each and every one of you deserves to be taken care of just as you take care of your friends, your neighbors, members of your community, and complete strangers.
At the end of the day, this isn’t a new problem. PTSD is an issue that has existed since the dawn of firefighting and other traumatic events. The psychological impacts just haven’t been fully considered until recently. It seems; however, there is a stronger focus on career firefighters while less of an open and verbal concern for volunteers.
You answer the call to help others at a moment’s notice, and many of you may believe that since you are there to help others, you can’t reach out for help yourself. You don’t have to be a statistic; you can get the help you need. Talk to someone, talk to anyone, your life is just as valuable as the person you are rescuing when the alarm goes off.
PTSD is real, and it needs everyone’s attention.
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.