Commentary by Adam J. Hansen
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)… I am by no means, nor I am pretending to be an expert on the subject matter. In fact, it’s an area I know little about. In the fire service, the issue has always existed but only recently been discussed. When I first joined the fire service as an 18-year-old volunteer, I can’t say it was completely taboo to talk about your feelings, but it was greatly less than it is today. If something was bothering you, there were avenues to go down, but most thought to themselves “I don’t want to be THAT GUY who can’t take the victim who just got dismembered on the highway.”
Even since that short time ago, the fire service has improved significantly. When I was newly hired by my career department, I remember clear as day being first due to a reported minor motor vehicle accident than turned out to be an extrication. This extrication resulted in the loss of three teenagers in one car. The next tour, my battalion chief made the extraordinary effort of clearing time and took a well-respected senior man and myself off the line to take a ride in a department SUV around town to simply talk. This small action, however insignificant it may have been to the senior member and the battalion chief, made a world of difference to me as a new firefighter. It made me realize my fellow members had my back no matter what I faced. I wasn’t in this fight alone.
Despite how much time goes by, whether it’s one call or 20, we all have those “heavy incidents” we will carry forever. As a fire service, we’ve improved when it comes to keeping an eye out for “the bad calls” that we suspect could be affecting one of our brothers or sisters. But are bad calls the only things we should be looking out for? Not at all. Throughout the years we have added things like divorce, financial troubles, death of a family member, and a host of other bad stuff that happens throughout a firefighter’s life. Yet there is one area in which we need to improve on immensely: We need to start being more aware of how we are treating our fellow members on a daily basis.
For example, Firefighter Doe gets ripped on by his crew on a daily basis for a trait he may have, like the way he talks, the way he walks, or the way he looks, etc. It’s all fine and good until that simple joke slowly starts to spiral out of control and becomes part of the daily routine. Firefighter Doe may become affected by this little by little. It keeps affecting him until one day he says to himself: “I don’t even want to go into work today… I know I’m gonna get ranked on throughout the tour.” In my opinion, banter is a great part of our job. In the right doses, it promotes camaraderie throughout the house and brings the family closer together. It becomes a problem when, instead of the joking lasting for a few tours like most jokes do, it becomes systemic and becomes part of the daily routine. If a particular firefighter loves the banter and attention that comes along with it, then great! Some can handle it, but some can’t. That said, we need to be extremely careful. Do we think the member who comes in every day and gets completely destroyed, mocked, and ridiculed is going to speak up and say: “You know, guys, you making fun of me really hurts my feelings. Can you please stop?” The chances are slim.
We talk a big game when it comes to things like helping our members, PTSD, and suicide prevention. We talk a big game when it comes to watching for indicators for when someone might be having problems. I say we talk a big game because all the while we are helping our members through the “bad calls” or family problems, we could be at the same time destroying another member and ripping them apart. What if a member who is the butt of these jokes and harassment has other things going on in their life? What if their kid is sick? What if they’re having marital issues? What if they are going through some kind psychiatric problem? If we come in and destroy them every day, we are definitely adding to their potentially bad frame of mind. Knowing how ruthless firehouses can be at times, I think we can all agree that firehouse antics could accelerate an already collapsing state of mind. If that person decided to commit suicide, how would we possibly know how much the banter impacted the overall situation?
I am by no means saying to stop the stone busting in the firehouse. I enjoy partaking in it just as much as the next. It is part of our lives, part of our culture, and part of our service. At the right times, in the right situations, and in the right doses, it can be instrumental in making our firehouse families that much closer. All I’m saying is to keep an eye out, just like we stay on the lookout for the “bad calls” and check up on our brothers and sisters to ensure they aren’t affected, let’s do the same with the banter. If you think it’s getting out of control and may be affecting someone in a negative way, be a leader. Instead of being afraid of not going along with the “cool kids” and not wanting to rock the boat, be a leader and say: “Guys, let’s cool it a little…I think that’s enough.” Instead of simply making sure we aren’t exacerbating the problem, let’s take concrete measures to make things better.
ADAM J. HANSEN is a lieutenant assigned to Engine 7 in the Milford (CT) Fire Department, where he has worked since 2006. He began his career as a volunteer in Branford, Connecticut, in 1999. Hansen has a BS degree in fire science (fire administration) and a minor in criminal justice from the University of New Haven. He is a nationally registered paramedic and is a state-certified fire service instructor 2, fire officer 2, incident safety officer, pump operator, and aerial operator. He is certified in rescue operations: trench.