Firefighters and Critical Incident Stress: The Most Basic of Survival Lessons

By Melissa Riley

Many firefighters reading this are "old school." And if you are, congratulate yourself for being a surviving minority. It means that you have been in the fire service for at least 15 or more years, well beyond the average response life of a firefighter/EMT. The average stay of service is five to seven years. Just about the time common sense is able to override the "squirrel" in all of us, burnout occurs and these seasoned members leave our field. Why is that? Because for hundreds of years the first lesson we learned from the seasoned members around us after a bad call was to tough it out, keep it tucked somewhere deep inside where it cannot be seen, and suck it up. I will bet right now that if I asked you if you can remember your first fatality call, likely, you would remember it in pretty good detail. Do you remember what happened right after that call, or even during it? Were you sat down with coworkers and allowed to discuss what you had worked? Were you asked about that call a few days later just to see how you were feeling about it? Oh my, I said the word "feeling" in a fire service article. Well, man up and keep reading.

We have a great responsibility to prevent suffering among our fellow brother and sister firefighters. The suffering I speak of is the emotional toll that this job has on every single one of us. I hate to break the news to you, but we are all just human at the core. We may get to don turnout gear, but underneath it, we are as caring, if not more so, than the civilians we sacrifice ourselves to save. Stop and think about the rookies in your department. Have they run a serious call yet? How were they treated during and after that call? The law of primacy applies to everyone. What you learn first is the most ingrained and hard-to-forget piece of information. If these firefighters were not taught how to properly express their emotions after that call, then I guarantee they learned how to improperly express those emotions. And those people are already marked for burnout.


So what do we do? Take the analogy of the starfish. Thousands of starfish were on a beach dying. A person came along throwing them back into the sea. Another person told them they can’t all be saved. The person throwing them tossed another back in and said, "Well, I made a difference for that one." We cannot change that attitude of every firefighter at our station or in our department. But we can start with just one when he runs his first fatal/serious call: Mentor him in how to process that experience in a healthy way. Just something that small, but seemingly revolutionary in this field, may make all the difference in creating a healthy career firefighter instead of setting that person on a short course for burnout at just about the time he gains the experience and knowledge to be a valuable asset to your station and your department.

Try to change the culture regarding emotional health at your station. That begins with you. Find someone with whom you can share the experiences of your calls--be it a trusted friend, spouse, or a coworker. Allow yourself to express your human emotions at the time and place it is safe to do so. We all know that cannot occur on a scene--it isn’t safe for us or the victims. But it must occur at some point to keep you healthy and functioning to fulfill your calling of service in this life. Start with yourself, then bring a rookie in and mentor him: Tell him that it is okay to discuss the hard calls once they are over. All it takes is one courageous person (you) to begin to incorporate this culture of change within your shift, your station, and eventually your department. The life you save may be your own.

If you want to talk to someone about some of the harder calls, contact, visit serveprotect on Facebook, or Safe Call Now at 206-459-3020. You are not alone.

Melissa Riley has a Ph.D. in leadership and education, and is the canine coordinator for the Tennessee Task Force-2 USAR Team. She worked 20 years as a firefighter and was the first female Smoke Diver graduate from the Tennessee Fire Academy. She has experience as a wilderness EMT, a crisis counselor, and an instructor for high-angle rescue, among other subjects. She is a commercial flight instructor and an instructor for the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation. She is the state coordinator for the FEMA Disaster Crisis Counseling Program in Tennessee. 

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