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Firefighter/EMT Safety, Health & Survival: Tears to Memphis

When I’m asked to write articles for magazines about behavioral health, depression, suicides or whatever mental-health issues firefighters face, the subject is easy to write about. At those times, I become clinical about ways to offer assistance and advice to officers and firefighters regarding particular problems they might be facing. This article, however, reflects my own personal experience that I hope will be a heads-up for anyone else placed in this difficult situation.

Each of us, as firefighters, gets that certain rush when the tones go off for a possible structure fire. We listen with eager anticipation for updates from dispatch as our rigs make the mad dash with lights and sirens to the scene in hopes of fighting the “beast” and making the save by rescuing trapped victims and preserving property.

Admit it—we enjoy it because that’s who we are.

But on a beautiful, warm June Sunday, the dispatch words no one likes to hear became my reality. “District 36, you have a drowning, reports of a three-year-old found in a pool”. It’s then and there that reality sets in.

The scene was surreal as I entered the backyard. Partygoers were walking around, crying into each other’s arms and pointing to the pool. My engine crew, who had just cleared a trauma call, responded to this drowning call and was the first on the scene.

I responded and pulled in right after the engine. Our ambulance was transporting the previous trauma patient, so we had mutual aid ambulances responding in their place. We also receive a squad to assist, per our run cards.

As incident commander, I watched in amazement as these three departments worked this victim with precision and professionalism. Although the outcome was not what we had hoped for, it was the after-effect that caught me off-guard.

Later that evening, the adrenalin was still evident as our company discussed the details of who did what and how the call went and kudos were given to the other departments. Yet something didn’t feel right with me. I couldn’t put my finger on it as I went to bed, but something was missing.

The next morning I had to take a flight to Memphis. It was on this flight that my views of certain behaviors and how, as officers, we need to observe our personnel after traumatic calls was changed.

As I was working my Sudoku puzzle, the tragic scene started playing over and over again in my mind. This time my perspective wasn’t from what I call “firefighter mode,” but more from a civilian’s view—the agony and tears of the parents, the body of this lifeless young child and a picture of my own 18-month-old granddaughter’s face and how I would deal with this tragedy. With these images racing through my mind, I found myself fighting back the tears—the very tears that I knew were missing last night.

During my next shift, I spoke individually with my crew members and they admitted they also were just coming to terms with the scope and depth of the drowning call. Did they need CISM, EAP or our chaplain to respond? It was offered to them, but just knowing that each of us felt this way seemed to give us comfort and no further action was needed. Lessons were learned.

As an officer, think of the following when tragic calls or situations hit your firehouse:

  • First, calling for a CISM team, EAP or chaplain is never a bad call, but remember that these calls might be better served a shift or two later.
  • Allow everyone to digest a call. The firefighter mode could lead you to believe everything is okay.
  • As an officer, be willing to share your thoughts and feelings with your members. Catharsis (purging of emotions) has a self-healing effect. This doesn’t mean there’s something wrong if you don’t break down and cry. I am talking about allowing yourself to express how you feel.
  • If you find a member needing additional help, don’t hesitate to go above and beyond to find them help. Knowing that an officer has their back away from the fireground can gain more respect than actions on the fire scene.

As officers, we’re put into difficult situations every time we show up at the station, whether we’re career, POC or volunteer. The challenges we face are unknown each and every day. Yet, understanding that we’re human beings first and firefighters second allows us to gain an understanding of our own emotions.

This allows us to watch for signs that perhaps one of our own might be suffering. It opens the door for us to listen and help our personnel through their difficult times. It’s then I feel we become the complete officer.

Jeff Dill is a battalion chief at Palatine Rural Fire Protection District in Inverness, Ill., the founder of Counseling Services for Fire Fighters and a licensed professional counselor. He’s also a member of the SHS Section.

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