Extend the “brotherhood” to cover emotionally troubled firefighters

“The brotherhood of firefighters.” “We take care of our own.” “Everybody goes home at the end of the shift.” These are statements we have heard in movies, read in books, and used around the firehouse for years, but do they accurately portray what is happening today? Are we taking care of our own when it comes to behavioral health issues? Is everybody going home at the end of the shift with the proper state of mind? Does the brotherhood exist, or are we turning a blind eye toward emotionally troubled firefighters? These are the questions every member of the fire service, especially chief officers, should be asking themselves.

Firefighters are ordinary people who are called on to do extraordinary things. They run into burning buildings when everyone else is running out. They operate at horrific accident scenes and are the last hope for someone needing to be rescued. Through all this, they are dealing with the day-to-day problems everyone faces, such as financial issues and family crises. They are provided with the tools to put out fires and rescue people, but what about the tools to handle the stressors placed on them from doing their job.

As a member of the Marine Corps, a correctional officer, and a member of the fire service for the past 26 years, I have been exposed to many of these job stressors. They include serious injuries, fatalities, and most recently the stress involved with leading a large urban city fire department with reduced staffing and budget. Throughout my career, I have received very little training in behavioral health issues until recently. When my training director approached me in 2012 with a request to bring suicide-prevention training to the department, he had prepared himself with a thorough argument in case I said no. Much to his surprise, I immediately agreed to the training for reasons known only to myself and a select few. The training director was unaware that my father, a retired firefighter, had died as a result of suicide four years earlier.

I am not sure if my father was an alcoholic prior to entering the fire service in 1970 or if that was something he acquired with on-the-job training. Back then, it appeared that drinking on the job or working “under the weather” was an accepted practice, so it was easy for an alcoholic to blend in. Although his “brothers” thought they were helping by covering up his problem, in reality they were slowly allowing him to die and destroy our family at the same time. Looking back, I wish a supervisor or a chief officer had identified his problem and found a way to help before it was too late. I wish there was access to the readily available behavioral health training we have today. I also wish the culture of the “macho” firefighter who is impervious to fear and unaffected by stress did not exist back then, and I hope that it does not still exist in departments today.

Along with the alcoholism, there were other factors I believe contributed to his eventual decision to take his own life. Early in his career, while operating at a fire scene, he sustained a back injury that would impact the rest of his life. He had two discs removed, which caused him constant pain and limited his activities such as playing sports with his sons. I can recall days where he was literally confined to his recliner because the pain was so severe, yet he never opted for an early retirement. Throughout his 31-year career, there were many tragic incidents he responded to that troubled him deeply, two in particular.

One was early morning on Thanksgiving Day when his engine company was first to respond to a horrific motor vehicle accident. On arrival, it was discovered that the victim of the fatal accident was a fellow firefighter. I can remember marching next to my father in the funeral procession later that week; he struggled mightily to control his emotions.

The other incident occurred when two young brothers fell through the ice on a pond behind a middle school two days before Christmas in 1996. My father was in the boat that found one boy under the ice. When they pulled the boy into the boat, my father began to resuscitate him. The child vomited in my father’s mouth, but he continued his resuscitation efforts all the way into shore until the boy was handed off to paramedics. That boy survived while his younger brother died, but that experience would continue to bother my father throughout his career and beyond. I am sure there were other incidents he did not mention that had an emotional impact on him but which he buried deep inside and did not seek any help to deal with.

My father was a deeply troubled man, but he was also a good man who loved his family very much and would help anyone in need. He was a good firefighter who earned the nickname “Code Red” because no matter where he worked, the fires seemed to follow him. But as he got older and his illness progressed, he became much more isolated and withdrawn from his friends and family. There were changes that were obvious to all who knew him. Despite all the signs pointing to this slow demise, no one took any steps to prevent it—not his friends, not his fellow firefighters, not his family until it was too late.

My father made the decision to take his life in August 2008, more than six years after he suited up for his final shift as a firefighter. That is a day I will never forget. I held him in my arms. I was in shock, waiting for the first responders to arrive to take his lifeless body from me. I often blame myself for not recognizing the signs that led up to his suicide or not wanting to believe them.

That is the reason I have become such a strong believer in and advocate for behavioral health and suicide prevention training for every member of the fire service. Behavioral health training is just as important to firefighters as rapid intervention or first responder training, and that message needs to come from the top. If you are a chief and are not advocating for this type of training, you are doing a disservice to your department and yourself.

The program provided to the members of the Springfield (MA) Fire Department consisted of an hour and a half of training from Sarah Gaer, a suicide prevention specialist at Riverside Trauma Center in Question, Persuade, Refer (QPR). QPR is an evidence-based suicide prevention program that teaches community gatekeepers how to identify the risk factors and warning signs of suicide and then how to question the individual, persuade the individual to seek help, and refer the individual to the appropriate resources. Springfield firefighters were asked to engage in a pre-survey and a post-survey to gauge shifts in attitude concerning suicide prevention as well as their confidence in their own ability to handle psychiatric crises. The department consistently showed improvement in all areas based on those surveys. This program was funded by the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health. Additional information about QPR is available at www.qprinstitute.com/index.html. Sarah Gaer can be reached at sgaer@riversidecc.org, or visit http://www.riversidetraumacenter.org.

The issue of firefighter suicide is not going away. We as fire service leaders need to confront the issue head on and provide the tools necessary for action. I do not want any firefighter to have to go through what I have witnessed, a senseless death that may have been prevented through education and intervention. It is time we take the statements “We take care of our own” and “Everybody goes home at the end of the shift” seriously and make them primary goals in our departments.

Joseph Conant
Fire Commissioner
Springfield, Massachusetts

“And the Band Played On”

Chief Bobby Halton’s “And the Band Played On” (Fire Engineering, March 2014) struck a funny note with me. Years ago, during Eugene Ormandy’s tenure with the Philadelphia Orchestra, my family had close associations with the orchestra and many of its members. As a result, we got to learn a lot of inside material.

Like all major orchestras, guest conductors were commonly engaged. Some were easygoing; some were known tyrants. In dealing with some of the more difficult guest conductors, someone, usually the concertmaster, would say to the guest during rehearsal, “Treat us well, or we’ll follow you exactly.” The guest usually took that as a “word to the wise.”

Thanks for a great magazine.

Samuel V. Yardumian
Chief Engineer
Bryn Athyn (PA) Fire Company


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