In 2013, I attended Fire-Rescue International in Chicago, mostly to attend the SHS's Section membership meeting—the section board's annual opportunity to spend time with members face to face. After a hectic day and night, after having left a board meeting and an awards dinner, I caught a taxi to the hotel to rest before my trek back to Broward County, Fla.
The taxi driver, a relatively younger gentleman of foreign descent, was more talkative than most others I've encountered, and I was more fatigued than usual after a long day of meetings.
He asked a few simple questions: "What do you do?" to which I replied that I'm a chief fire officer in my 24th year in Broward County.
His next half statement-half question flowed so simply: "I bet you've seen a lot."
My response, I recall, was pretty simple: more tragedy than I care to remember and some great along the way.
It was such a simple conversation with a taxi driver who understood that we as fire and emergency-service professionals serve the public through the most adverse of times and tragedies.
Our mission has been, is and will continue to be clear: to serve others.
However, we have all experienced the joy of success and the agony of tragedy. The stories, no doubt, are etched in your mind as they are in mine. As I heard this driver's questions, calls etched in my find flashed forward: A young family killed by a drunk driver on their way home from enjoying a night out viewing Christmas light displays. A newly engaged couple with rose still in hand killed while trapped in their vehicle. A rollover with multiple children ejected and dead from blunt trauma. These all flash back into clear memory.
At the same time, clear joys come up as well: Successful childbirths. Not only reassuring young asthmatics who believed they were going to die that they would survive, but also helping them do so. A colleague who suffered a traumatic double amputation and by many counts had life-threatening hypovolemic shock not only surviving, but also thriving. These also rushed back to mind.
These memories jolted my mind, and no doubt each of you has your own jarring stories.
The underlying message is simple. Etched in our minds from our years of service are the triumphs of human survival and the tragedies of human misery. After 27 years of experiencing both, it resonates with this single statement: "I bet you've seen a lot."
The question that the taxi driver didn't ask and is increasingly being discussed in public-safety circles is where we go from here. By most accounts, these experiences take a cumulative toll on the responders who face these experiences. Often, the culture dictates that we move on and handle the next order of business; the reality is that more may be needed.
Much emphasis has been placed on public-safety responders' behavioral health. We must become continually more sensitized to not only the impact of our professional exposures, but to the need for behavioral health support systems.
In Broward County, we expanded a partnership with our university system that has a psychology program with an emphasis on first responders. This allows us to utilize graduate students to develop educational and healthy coping mechanisms as well as resource awareness in a program of Behavioral Health Peer training. The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation has also developed resources aimed at addressing these challenges for public-safety providers.