In the course of doing their job, firefighters encounter many situations that most people will never see. We really never know what to expect when we arrive on an emergency scene, and are often subjected to awful sights and circumstances. We witness firsthand gore and heartbreak. We respond to critical incidents that reveal the gamut of human behavior. We have a very unusual work schedule and often suffer from sleep deprivation. In short, we lead complicated lives. We all learn to deal with these things in our own way.
The term ‘Critical Incident’ has been used to describe some of the worst emergency responses we encounter. These are the calls that haunt us, and many times we leave an emergency scene with a lot of emotional baggage. Early on in my career, I found out that there are many tools that fire fighters use to cope with situations like this. Organizationally, we use crisis intervention to ‘defuse’ and ‘debrief’ responders after a critical incident. A professionally trained facilitator leads these sessions and the fire service has found them to be very helpful. But more often we leave the scene behind us, try not to think about it, and never mention it. Part of our culture is to downplay the tragedy that we see, and this can lead to unhealthy results. Internalizing our response to the situations and sights to which we are subjected can cause physical and behavioral health issues. Not only can this lead to poor job performance, but it can eat away at the very fabric of our lives. Depression, substance abuse, divorce, and suicide are more common with fire fighters and police officers than they are with the general population.
A good analogy is that our head is like a dumpster that we fill up with trash day in and day out. It needs to be emptied periodically or it will overflow. When it does, anything can happen, and the results are never good. Talking about the things that bother us and acknowledging our troubles are healthy and good ways to empty the dumpster.
Major fire departments across the US have noticed a spike in the number of suicides recently.The Chicago Fire Department (CFD) has had six suicides and several attempted suicides in their ranks this past year. CFD officials attribute the increase to the stoic approach and bottled up feelings of their firefighters, and have organized open counseling sessions and a family day to address the outbreak. San Jose Fire is dealing with a similar trend and has published a guidebook. Another informative article about fire fighter suicide can be accessed here.
There is a national trend toward educating members about our particular mental health issues as firefighters, and emphasizing the need to look out for each other while taking care of ourselves. Recognizing the warning signs of a colleague in distress is one thing, but taking the next step and acting on it is the hard part. Traditionally, there has been a stigma attached to reaching out for help and seeking counseling. But in recent years there has been a massive change in fire service mindset. One out of five firefighters at the Fire Department City of New York has voluntarily seen a counselor.
Counseling cannot be mandatory. A firefighter needs to voluntarily seek help. For most firefighters that is going to take encouragement. It is normal to be affected by the job we do. No one is immune to the tragedy that we witness. We need to look for warning signs in our coworkers and ourselves – we are a family and we need to look out for each other.
Until next week – be safe!
Click on the links below to read Safety Chief Bancroft's previous Firefighter Safety Blogs:
Portland Fire & Rescue We Respond: Always Ready, Always There
July 13, 2010