Ultimate Firefighter

All The World’s a Stage, and The Fire Chiefs Merely Players

Groucho Marx wearing a fire helmet

Article and artwork by Scott Ferguson

How do you start a discussion on a topic few may want to admit exists among those who are supposed to have reached the pinnacle of their firefighting career? How does one admit that a man or woman responsible for ensuring that firefighters maintain their balance has in fact lost his or her own? How can an audience believe that behind the scripted smiles and carefully placed words is a psyche fatigued and frustrated by the never-ending political games, selfish attitudes, and moral end-arounds? How is someone supposed to trust a person willing to concede that, if they had to do it all over again, they would never have accepted a position as fire chief?

What started as a cathartic attempt by a senior officer to generate a little conversation about a quiet voice in his head has become a mass confession by fire chiefs that the top spot isn’t always what it is cracked up to be. In fact, several acknowledged that if they knew then what they know now, they would have pumped the brakes long before they took that final oath of responsibility. The following observations were prompted by a pair of recent surveys that were sent to a number of fire chiefs around the nation. These surveys were designed to gauge how much the perceptions of occupying the top spot in a fire department match with the reality of the position. Compounding matters, if a third anonymous poll issued to city managers and department heads is any indication of the truth, the toothy smiles and public compliments directed towards public safety professionals may not be as genuine some may like to believe.

Firefighters are inherently trusted sight unseen. They are looked to during times of duress/trouble/emergency. Board members and dept. heads know their value, but often will be making comments at the water cooler, referring to them as “the spoiled children” or “The Chosen” or “Golden.” Don’t take this lightly; it is a sign of partial envy and potential hidden agendas. – City manager

Regardless of whether they would do it again or not, it’s apparent that not everyone was adequately prepared for the sizeable personal price the badge often requires of a fire chief. To the fire industry’s credit, first responder post-traumatic stress and depression issues have been more prominently featured over the past few years. Well-publicized studies, articles, and specialized programs have emerged from the kind of tragedies that have always existed. Until recently, those troubles had only been shared from the privacy of a couch or barstool. Only now are those telling their stories being revered for their courage, rather than scorned for their weakness. What’s not openly being talking about is the effect that traumatic and cumulative stress has had on those who have graduated from running calls to putting out a different kind of fire.

Beyond the Spotlight and Into the Darkness

William Shakespeare once wrote that “All the world’s a stage; and, all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts…” Shakespeare is talking about the dramatic roles that everyone experiences throughout their lives. He reduces the existence of human beings to a performance influenced by a script composed by a faceless team of writers, who themselves cannot agree on a plot or an ending. Thus, if somebody is a teacher, a banker, or a middle-aged fire chief, he or she is merely turning the pages of script, subject to endless rewrites and a sea of critics.

It’s all about hair and make-up. – Fire chief

Over much of their careers, chiefs, like entertainers, play a series of roles, many of which are acted out on a very public stage. Other roles are shared privately or never shared at all, for fear of an intolerable label affixed by an equally intolerable audience. They have become the butt of the same jokes that they had once laughed about around the kitchen table. The same guys that they used to hang out with on their days off–trading labor, going to games, and celebrating family milestones–may now turn them away at the door. The numbers seem to indicate that behind the mask of many of these leaders is a measure of anxiety and self-doubt that has yet to be openly discussed.

RELATED: Fire Service Behavioral Check-Up Paul Combs Poster: Firefighter PTSD and Suicide | Strategies for Preventing Suicides in the Fire Service

Strangely, the notoriety generated by the recent suicides of several celebrities may actually provide a healthy frame of reference from which to begin the conversation. Writing on the death of Anthony Bourdain, Stanton Peele commented: “But his death, coming just days after the suicide of the beloved designer Kate Spade, is at least as noteworthy for another reason: how powerfully it speaks to the discrepancy between what we see of people on the outside and what they’re experiencing on the inside; between their public faces and their private realities; between their visible swagger and invisible pain. Parts unknown: That was true of (Anthony) Bourdain. That was true of Spade. That’s true of every one of us.”[1]

The Sad Clown

“I’m sure most of you have heard the story of the man who, desperately ill, goes to an analyst and tells the doctor that he has lost his desire to live and that he is seriously considering suicide. The doctor listens to this tale of melancholia and then tells the patient that what he needs is a good belly laugh. He advises the unhappy man to go to the circus that night and spend the evening laughing at Grock, the world’s funniest clown. The doctor sums it up, ‘After you have seen Grock, I am sure you will be much happier.’ The patient rises to his feet, looks sadly at the doctor, turns and ambles to the door. As he starts to leave, the doctor says, ‘By the way what is your name?’ The man turns and regards the analyst with sorrowful eyes. ‘I am Grock.'” – Groucho Marx

Groucho’s story speaks to the paradox of loneliness that some feel even after having reached the grandest stage their profession has to offer. It seems that sometimes there exists a shadowy codependence between the hero and his audience. I’ve wondered if there is a little bit of Grock in all fire chiefs. If that is the case, whom do we go to for a smile and enough encouragement to make it through the difficult days?

We need to accept that as a chief officer you are not the same. Your added level of responsibility and the optic of how and what you do, decisions that you make are more often than not in alignment with rank and file. The old adage in my humble view, “Command is a lonely place to be.”– Fire chief

Dave Itzkoff recently released a new biography entitled Robin on May 15 of this year. In it, he draws on the experiences of some of Robin Williams’s closest friends and family members to provide perspective on his incredible life and career, including the eventual decline that led to his suicide in August 2014.

Like many, I remember feeling a deep sadness upon the announcement of Robin’s passing. Movies like “Good Morning Vietnam,” “Dead Poets Society,” “Patch Adams,” and even “Popeye” allowed scores of people from all walks of life to leave their troubles at the ticket booth. With little more than a bag of popcorn and some Red Vines, Robin guided us on a 40-year journey of first dates and family outings where gliding across the skies in a pirate ship seemed like a very real possibility.

It is hard to imagine a person with his comedic genius and range as an actor ever feeling anything short of immense self-satisfaction. But, the irony is inescapable: Robin’s stage was a safe place, a sanctuary from which he escaped from an imposed reality. Over the past few years, Robin had been bouncing from one low-budget film to another; most were dark and a long way from the block busters that became hallmarks of his celebrity. He had two ex-wives and a new spouse that, in part, led him to downsize his assets so as to maintain a comfortable home. He was not broke, but like 44 percent of all Americans, he did acknowledge that, “Divorce is expensive.”

Until recently, it was felt that Robin Williams suffered from depression exasperated by a misdiagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. An autopsy would later reveal that he had Lewy Body Dementia, an aggressive and incurable brain disorder that has an associated risk of suicide.[2] Still, the diagnosis does not change the fact that many public figures, including those whose audience exists anonymously, beyond a curtain of darkness, suffer from some range and form of depression.

Misery Loves Endures Company

At some point, these recent events prompted me to wonder how many others, regardless of their status in life, have found that their most prominent roles are played far from the source of their notoriety, but still under the attentive eye of those who have come to define their public identity. When does the line between performer, athlete, CEO, politician, or chief blur to such a degree that the essence of self is lost to the expectations of others…and at what cost?

“Look at your life and see how you have filled its emptiness with people. As a result they have a stranglehold on you. See how they control your behavior by their approval and disapproval. They hold the power to ease your loneliness with their company, to send your spirits soring with praise, to bring you down to the depths with their criticism and rejection. Take a look at yourself spending almost every waking moment of your day placating and pleasing people, whether they are living or dead. You live by their norms, conform to their standards, seek their company, desire their love, dread their ridicule, long for their applause, meekly submit to the guilt they lay upon you; you are terrified to go against the fashion in the way you dress or speak or act or even think.” – Psychotherapist Anthony de Mello [3]

RELATED: Firefighter Behavioral Health and Suicide: A Rising Tide | First Responder Mental Health: A Chief’s Perspective | RL Colina: Living in Darkness After the Smoke Clears | Can Peer Support Prevent Firefighter Suicide?

Williams’s death has also become a reminder that the presence of a suffering mind is not a fair indication of society’s general definition of success. The material that comes from a counselor’s couch often makes great fodder for a comic’s act. Jim Carrey, Sarah Silverman, Sharon Osbourne, Woody Allen, Richard Pryor, Ellen DeGeneres and others who make people laugh for a living often struggle with off-stage mental health issues. Athletes who have reached the top of their sport, such as Terry Bradshaw, Oscar De La Hoya, Michael Phelps, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson have all publicly acknowledged their battles with depression. Singers Lady Gaga, Demi Lovato, Miley Cyrus have joined actors like Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Halle Berry and many more to tell similar stories.

The narratives shared between our professions seem eerily similar. Apparently, the costumes worn by stage and film celebrities are not much different from the uniforms worn by public safety professionals. Each is assessed by his or her ability to operate from a carefully crafted script; with little room for improvisation until the cameras are off, the curtain is drawn, and the extras have all gone home. The irony is that we a fire chiefs may look for respite from our daily role in entertainments being produced by people who share the same dilemma: a disparity between how one is perceived and reality.

We are taught early in our careers that good leadership requires “situational leadership,” meaning that a given circumstance may require a unique response, depending on the timing, location, and people involved. If I’d known that as a fire chief I would be celebrated for my ability to answer so many voices, I would have never quit taking my medications. #embracingmyschizophrenia. – Fire chief

You Are a Fire Chief…What’s There to Be Depressed About?

Let’s begin considering the question about “why” by conceding that anyone with ready access to the print, television, radio, or social media is fed a daily crap sandwich. Bite by bite, we are bombarded with local, national, and worldwide negativity surrounding everything from the poisoning of foreign spies to gun control, militant extremism, and of course partisan politics. Even the rhetoric surrounding our beloved sports teams has migrated from whatever had once been accepted as “passionate support” to all kinds of thuggish behavior, hidden behind some blogger’s less-than-charming Facebook or Twitter handle.

The rotten part of it is that the making of this condition is apparently our own doing. Researchers have determined that people have a collective appetite to hear and retain bad news. Apparently, depression sells. “The average click-through rate on headlines with negative superlatives was a staggering 63 percent higher than that of their positive counterparts.”[4]

Now consider that nearly 20 percent of all adults in the United States live with varying degrees of mental illness (44.7 million in 2016).[5] Then mix in that the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) reports that not only are firefighters subject to that same figure, but they are also three times more likely to take their own life than die in the line of duty, a factor that actually estimated to be under reported by as much as 40 percent. What is worse, 92 percent of firefighters apparently view seeking treatment as a sign of weakness; which means that far too few are seeking the help they need to adequately cope with the difficult memories they have hoarded throughout their careers.[6]

Five of the chiefs surveyed acknowledged that they had thoughts of suicide or self-harm.

As powerful as the numbers are, I’m sure that the average person would expect that achieving the rank of fire chief would earn more than just a symbol of success. Notwithstanding the loss of overtime, pensions, and salaries are generally larger; a sense of independence exists; and, while there may not be any crowns to wear or thrones upon which to perch, there most certainly are some perks that come with the gold badge. It must also seem logical that many of the stressors that once accompanied responding to fire and EMS calls at all hours of the day and night would simply fade away.

Not necessarily so, reports Alice Walton in a 2015, edition of Forbes Magazine, “A smattering of research has suggested that authority may be linked to depression, and that CEOs may be depressed at more than double the rate of the general public.”[7] She goes on to point out that the super-successful professionals that seem to “have it all” are often subject to conditions that may, in fact, have the opposite effect.

From day one you feel the difference in accountability. It very much feels like going from an important employee in a business to the actual owner. The responsibility for everyone’s actions comes back to you and that pressure is felt. Ultimately, there is a much higher level of stress that you have to find a way to deal with so that you aren’t miserable. – Fire chief

Todd Essig, a Forbes contributor and psychologist in New York City concurs, “Many C-suite executives are prone to depression, despite their success, maybe even because of it. Some people habitually measure their self-worth by whoever seems to be more successful than they are a recipe for constant depression-inducing envy.”

I was not prepared for the sheer volume of administrative tasks associated with a chief officer’s position. No one thing is particularly daunting or difficult, but some days it feels like a “Whack-a-Mole” game or death by 1,000 cuts. – Fire chief

Two of the surveys featured here also seem to support Ms. Walton’s assertions. One included the responses of 94 chief officers, 87 percent of whom were identified as the number-one fire chief. Granted under a blanket of anonymity, responders candidly checked boxes and provided commentary that otherwise may never see the light of day. No excuses were offered. Most, with a few significant adjustments, would do it all over again. But, many did not pull any punches. Although the majority of these remain active (74.7 percent); just over a quarter of responders are classified as retired; and the span of service as a chief ranged widely from six months to as long as 32 years.

What quickly became apparent is that some fire chiefs struggle with feelings of insecurity, isolation, loneliness, and fear washed in a paste of anxiety. Why? Because a good classroom education does not adequately prepare an officer for the human side of the dream equation. Traditional commercial success is defined by relatively tangible metrics and milestones, such as production, contracts, clients, and revenue. Even ill-tempered CEOs can thrive in an environment where these standards meet the stockholders bottom line. Conversely, some would argue that success within the fire service is better defined by warm feelings than by the business practices that we are so ardently trying to emulate.

Fire chiefs face a litany of less tangible problems that, depending on the corporate mood of the membership, may lack any clear solutions. For the entirety of their careers, firefighters have been measured by their success in putting out fires, saving lives, and their ability to foster relationships in and out of the firehouse. Now chiefs have found that the rules have expanded to include a number of critical elements that only seem to grab the headlines when a dark cloud is overhead. And, lacking any clear “sex appeal,” many of the decisions that stem from these analyses are receiving bad reviews from the firehouse critics.

When you move to chief, you become one of “them.” The information you get is much more filtered. You are perceived that you are out to get “them.” You are expected to not change even though your role has changed. – Fire chief

As a proud chief of a CPSE[8] accredited agency, I’ll be the first to extol the value of data mining, strategic plans, SWOT analyses, and a wide variety of colorful spreadsheets. However, that is where the similarities between big business and the fire service end. There are just too many variables out of a chief’s control to provide some guarantee that our audience will sustain their applause.

Technically, I guess I had prepared well to be a fire chief. I had the degrees, been to the National Fire Academy a number of times, and had experience in, where I thought, were the right places. What I was not adequately prepared for was the long list of demands on my time and the number of people in and out of the department that seemed comfortable bending the rules or stretching ethical behavior. I’ve learned that maintaining good relationships is the magic, but my drive home at night was often filled with the discomfort of knowing that making the right decision would not always be the popular one… – Fire chief

This is not to say that chiefs do not find success. Many have either hired into or created an environment conducive to high morale and pride within their organization. However, the question remains what would happen if one or more of those environmental factors were to go away. Could those with a great stage presence and a winning track record sustain the spirit and identity of the organization if the economy tanked? What if there were a significant change in council or the city manager, and their priorities shifted away from public safety, leading to fewer apparatus purchases, a decline in facilities, and fewer pay raises?

In Part 2, we consider some of the challenges facing chiefs and the accompany stress they present, along with possible solutions.

REFERENCES

[1] Peele, Stanton. (Jun 08, 2018). The Suicide Trap, Retrieved July 14, 2018 from Psychology Today Web site: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/addiction-in-society/201806/the-suicide-trap

[2] Cooper, Marta. (October 2, 2018). Robin Williams suffered from a common form of dementia that many people don’t know about, Retrieved May 30, 2018 from Quartz Web site: https://qz.com/798443/robin-williams-suffered-from-dementia-with-lewy-bodies-a-widely-under-diagnosed-condition/

[3] Richard E. Simmons III. The True Measure of a Man (Evergreen Press, 2013), 10

[4] Wood, Shawn Paul. (February 21, 2014). Bad News: Negative Headlines Get Much More Attention, Retrieved July 14, 2018 from Adweek Web site: Richard https://www.adweek.com/digital/bad-news-negative-headlines-get-much-more-attention/

[5] Health Information, Retrieved July 14, 2018 from National Institute of Mental Health Web site: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/mental-illness.shtml

[6] IAFF Staff. (May 31, 2017). Silent Suffering: Firefighting and Depression, Retrieved on July 14, 2018 from IAFF Recovery Center Web site: https://www.iaffrecoverycenter.com/blog/silent-suffering-firefighting-depression/

[7] Walton, Alice G. (January 26, 2015). Why The Super-Successful Get Depressed , Retrieved July 14, 2018 from Forbes Web site: https://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2015/01/26/why-the-super-successful-get-depressed/#2f87fb5e3850

[8] Center For Public Safety Excellence, Retrieved on July 14, 2018 from CPSE Web site: https://cpse.org/

Scott Ferguson is the fire chief of Murrieta, California. He has been a member of the fire service for 35 years and a chief for more than 10 years. He earned his fire science diploma from Bates Vocational Technical Institute in Tacoma, Washington and his AAS in business administration from Clark Community College. He also received his bachelor of science degree in liberal studies from Eastern Oregon University and his master’s degree in Management Psychology from Wayland Baptist University in 2005. He has completed the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy, is an accredited Chief Fire Officer (CFO), and completed the Harvard Kennedy School Executive Education Program in 2012. He  is a past president of the Los Angeles Area Fire Chiefs Association and the Riverside County Fire Chief’s Associations.