The manner in which first responders answer calls has been likened to a major league pitcher being asked to jump from the bullpen without warning and immediately throw a perfect game—hardly reasonable. However, the consequences of failure for the pitcher involve losing a game; although disappointing, no matter how important that game may be, it's still just a game.
The consequences for emergency responders are far different, so tremendous focus is placed on physical readiness.
Similarly, emergency responders are expected to be strong emotionally and mentally because they're exposed to some of the most difficult scenes imaginable. Every incident produces a slide—a snapshot of experience—that gets written to the hard drive of a responder's brain, to be recalled at some point in the future when similar circumstances present themselves and require a response.
One of the challenges, however, is that these experiences also produce a set of emotions that attach to those slides; when the slides show up, so do the emotions. While it might be easy to dismiss such thoughts publicly while putting on a brave face around fellow responders, the emotional impact of being an emergency responder is all too real—and all too often ignored.
This year's International Fire/EMS Safety and Health Week theme, Saving our Own … an Inside Job, casts a bright light on an issue that demands our attention. This is particularly true for company officers, who are uniquely positioned to identify when a member of their company needs help. Too often, we fail our company officers by sending them out into the world without the tools necessary to be successful—to bring their firefighters home alive.
Keeping firefighters from forcing the wrong door or throwing a ladder into wires is infinitely easier than having one-on-one conversations with them about not committing suicide. The overwhelming majority of company officers have never had to deal with such a serious situation. So when it's time to look into his or her slide tray for "how do I keep this member from taking their own life," the tray's empty, leaving the company officer to work through a minefield of mental health issues using, at best, a trial-and-error approach.
The reason we continue to promote Safety Week is simple: firefighters and emergency responders continue to die preventable deaths. While the number of firefighter fatalities has declined by nearly 25% over the last 10 years (an unbelievable accomplishment), we still have so much farther to go.
Sir Winston Churchill was once asked under what circumstances Great Britain might be forced to surrender to the Germans. His reply: "There are none … we will never, never, never quit."
So too it is with firefighter safety. It's not that the focus on safety comes once a year for a single week; there's profound understanding that safety is a 24/7/365 demand.
Rather, it's that each year there's an opportunity to focus on one aspect of the emergency services and gain a more thorough and intense knowledge of a specific strategy or program to increase the likelihood that everyone goes home.
Society today is moving faster than ever before, so it falls to those who serve in leadership positions to closely guard the wellbeing of their members. Take the time to gather as much information as possible and then be prepared to use it when called on to do so. The opportunity to save the life of a fellow emergency responder may occur far away from the fireground.