Firefighting, Health & Safety

Seeing Ghosts

Photo found on Wikimedia Commons courtesy of Sylvain Pedneault.

By Mark J. Cotter

In my “mind’s eye,” I see burning buildings, wrecked cars, and assorted victims everywhere in my community. I see a now empty lot is filled with intense flames that completely envelop a two-story home, melting the siding of the houses on either side. At a turn in the road on a sunny day, a car lays on its side in the dark of night, one occupant beneath, the other lying amongst the shrubbery. On my route to work, I glance over at a two-story concrete block industrial building, now whole, but can also see the wide vertical split caused by the explosion when a tanker truck’s load of acid was inadvertently pumped into a storage tank of alkali. Such is a firefighter’s unique perspective of his community.

In the dozen or so years I have been with my current department, I have responded to hundreds of calls throughout our district and surrounding areas, the memories of most still clear. The images of those incidents are layered on the landscape and structures, shadow-like in some instances, sharp and colorful in others, requiring—at times—some concentration to bring out, other times calling for some effort to see past, ranging from static images to full immersion experiences complete with movement, sounds and, sometimes, even smells. In our memories, the tragedies, challenges, and accomplishments we have experienced are entwined with the locations in which they occurred.

Having served with multiple departments for more than four decades and having similar visions revived whenever I returned to certain sites in those towns, I know that this shift in perception is permanent. When I pass by a grassy hillside near my home town, I can still see tire tracks leading from the roadway, ending where a car struck a tree almost 40 years ago, its driver dead from cardiac arrest even before impact. Faint smoke still seems to be rising from the attic window at a house fire I stumbled on as a teenage firefighter, even as the fire station alarm sounded, my first chance at initial size-up. I see a father, having been called while at work, standing in the road, trying to wave down our ambulance as we rush his fatally injured son to the hospital.

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Before you contact me with the name of a good therapist, I should add that the incidents that spawned these memories are not all tragic, nor are they even especially serious. Along my jogging route, I still leap across the long-ago-repaired section of the boardwalk where a horse broke through and became mired up to his chest in the marsh, resulting in one of the more unusual and prolonged technical rescues in which I have participated. I can clearly see a car, inexplicably overturned and empty at a four-way stop on a quiet street behind where I get my gas and morning coffee. On a porch roof, visible when I glance down a side street, I recall a man lying spread-eagle and clinging for his life, having been knocked down by his wife in a jealous rage. She had struck him with a broom, wielded through an open window as he was painting the house.

Still, I have known fellow responders, often with more intense and disturbing memories than me, who were lead to leave the emergency services altogether. Certainly, counseling is a way to prevent such a premature separation, or at least blunt the ill effects of such recall; every agency needs to provide and encourage the use of such services when needed. As for me, I am aware that there is a limit to my capacity for managing the weight and quantity of the memories I carry, and there may come a time when my ability to do so reaches its end. Humor, reflection, and discussion with other providers and/or trained therapists likely improve our tolerance for this burden by facilitating the recategorization of our recalled events into less stressful images.

As much as I’ve become accustomed to these memories, I remain clueless as to the reason for their persistence, especially since I sometimes have trouble remembering what I did last weekend. Like many firefighters, I am in continuous—if even low-grade—size-up mode, evaluating my surroundings, noting the locations of hydrants and blocked roadways, and trying to answer the “what-ifs” for various settings and situations. Even though this naturally colors my view of the world, actual events form much stronger images, more vivid and complex than any scenario that I could imagine. I can work through multiple size-up scenarios for a given address, but nothing will be as vivid or permanent as a real call. For instance, as many times as I’ve responded to the hospital complex in our first-due, I can still rattle off the various spots we positioned our rig for each, despite the fact that never have those calls resulted from a significant incident. The planning process and the memory imprinting phenomena are complimentary, but it is not equal.

Emergency services workers’ unique view of their world is both a curse and a blessing. The “slide tray/photo album” of experiences that we create in our memories can be accessed as needed when faced with similar situations, but it also has a tendency to be activated spontaneously and, potentially, uncomfortably so. Consider seeking assistance when the images begin to distort—rather than enhance—your perspective.


Mark J. Cotter has more than 40 years experience in emergency services and is currently a volunteer Captain with the Salisbury (MD) Fire Department. He can be reached at [email protected]