By Joshua C. Anderson
When firefighters hear this, they think of a roof collapsing, someone falling through a floor, a trapped firefighter, and so on. Our brotherhood is strong; we hear this and we perform our job, doing for what we were trained. We take care of our own whatever the problem. Or, do we?
“The effects of occupational stress, critical incident stress, and post traumatic stress disorder can be clearly illustrated in the case of firefighter Robert O’Donnell. After he rescued baby Jessica McClure in Midland, Texas, his life was never the same again. Over a seven-and-a-half year period, Robert O’Donnell went from a high profile hero, to an emotionally troubled firefighter, to a prescription drug user without a job or family, and finally to a suicide victim. Robert was a psychological trauma victim. He paid the ultimate price after the Murrah Building Bombing in Oklahoma City.”1
During my years in the fire service, I have met all the “usual suspects” in the firehouse: The serious “by-the-book” guy, the guy who tapes the sprayer so you get drenched, the guy who always remembers your birthday or other special occasions, or perhaps the guy who can’t sit still and is always cleaning or tinkering with something. There are thousands of brothers and sisters who are as unique as the fire service. I’ve seen heroism and I have seen compassion. I have also seen all of the other amazing attributes that come from the fire service!
After coming off of company and becoming a training officer, I began to notice some very disturbing trends. Problems existed within a lot of my friends and co-workers. Problems existed within me.
“It is part of the job,” they say. With seeing death and mayhem, living with one another for 24 to 48 hours, being away from your family, stress levels are up and down all day as calls come in. Over and over again we respond, see it, stabilize it, clean it up, and pack it up, and do it again. Then, we file it away in our minds. It is a little different each time, but in a similar way.
“They see the good, the bad, and the very ugly. They watch children die and families grieve. They’re called to the aftermath of gun battles, car accidents, and domestic rage. They’re cursed at, vomited and bled on, yet patients seldom ask their names. To say the least the professional life of a paramedic can be harsh and demanding. Their workday can last 24 to 48 hours. Some survive the stress, some don’t. The national average for a paramedic to stay on the job is just eight years.”2
I began remembering the faces of the ones lost or hurt, the family that lost everything, or the baby whose life was cut short because of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). It began to affect me, my health, and my family. Was it post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)? Indeed, I was eventually diagnosed with PTSD.
I felt weak. I, like most all of you, am an alpha personality. I used to feel that I could do everything and can do it better. This was way out of the ordinary for me; all of the sudden, I was a psychotic! I couldn’t tell my buddies this one, fearing humiliation. So, I hid my stress and anxiety and released it elsewhere or just kept it inside. Luckily, after a long bout, my faith in Christ and my family were there to help me through it.
“Stress is one of the most serious occupational hazards facing the modern fire service. It is important to recognize exactly how stress can adversely affect our health, job performance, career decision making, morale, and family life. It has been long known that stress can cause a variety of conditions and symptoms, most of which are detrimental to health and well-being. Job stress, whether in the corporate world or on an assembly line, can damage employee performance.”3
Looking back and considering what I went through, I was afraid to ask for help. I needed not just emotional fitness, but all types of fitness! A lack of physical, spiritual, and emotional fitness is the new killer of the fire service. When a friend calls a Mayday, we expend everything we have to get him out of that situation. We will risk our very life if it means saving his.
Does this way of thinking also apply to the member with high blood pressure who you joke to about eating that big, juicy hamburger dripping with grease. Do you acknowledge the problems of the member whose family is destroyed because all of his stress and anxiety was exhausted at them without them ever knowing what was going on? Which one has PTSD? Look at the 25-year veteran who has emotionally bottled up every rough run he has made because it’s “part of the job.” Being overweight or out of shape or suffering from preexisting medical conditions? They are all in our service. Our brothers and sisters experience them all.
“According to a survey conducted by the National Labor Organization, stress and its accompanying depression in the workplace is now the second most disabling illness hitting workers after heart disease. Recognizing that you’re reacting to this stress, and learning how to cope with it, will help you feel better, make your body healthier, and enable you to work more effectively.”4
We have great traditions. But, are we really taking care of our own? Our brothers and sisters are calling “Mayday”! The call may be silent or subtle, but it’s definitely a call for help. Let go of some of our older traditions and help one another with some of those things that really matter. Help your buddy with high blood pressure with the workout routine and the right diet his doctor has prescribed. Talk about the SIDS call you just made and make sure the newbie with the newborn is okay. Instead of the recliner workout, go for a run or run some drills.
Saving lives and property and risking our lives for others is our job. Killing ourselves when it can be avoided is not heroic, so watching a brother or sister do it is unthinkable. I love our new fire service motto—“Everyone Goes Home.” It is something we should all live by.
- Shantz MC. “Effect of Work Related Stress on Firefighter/Paramedic.” Eastern Michigan University, August 2002.
- Deborah B. Stress, horror of job mean a high level of burn outs. Los Angeles Business Journal, November 8, 1999.
- John Herman, Associate Professor of Psychiatry, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas.
- Peter Athol, Electronic Design, December 18, 2000.
Joshua C. Anderson is a firefighter with the Bridgetown (MS) Fire Department and a volunteer with the Love Fire Department in DeSoto County, Mississippi. He is also a corporate health and safety manager.