Photo courtesy of Saperaud~commonswiki.
By Sean Eagen and Brian Ward
When I walked through the fire academy door on April 13, 1998, for my first day as a member of the department, I must confess I didn’t know what to expect. I can’t say I dreamt of being a firefighter growing up; in fact, I wanted to be a police officer. All these years later, I am glad I chose the fire department, as it has blessed me and my family more than I ever imagined. The fire service has allowed me to network with family across the country, and I’ve built relationships I’ll hold on to forever.
As a 24-year-old probationary firefighter who was also the youngest of nine kids in a blue-collar Irish-Catholic family, I felt I had thick enough skin to handle anything the brothers and sisters could throw at me, no matter what it may be. Early in my career, I would give the following example when talking about what “family” means in the fire service. I would use it with friends, families, in classes, and with anyone on the job who has not experienced it. I would explain it by saying you can get anything you need from your firehouse family. You need to borrow a someone’s truck? “No problem.” Have a project at your house? “We’ll be there.” I gave several more examples and then followed up with the one thing you can’t get in the firehouse: sympathy.
During my 19 years in the service, my department has certainly experienced more than its fair share of tragedies both within our membership and with the citizens we serve from the calls run. We’ve had career-ending and life-altering injuries. We had a member get killed overseas while serving our country. We also have members dealing with cancer and other occupational medical conditions. We’ve had line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) and members take their own lives.
Some of these memories have haunted my dreams and the dreams of my fellow firefighters such as the call where we lost two young boys (who were about the same age as my sons). When I came home the next morning, my wife could tell that something was bothering me, but all I would tell her was that, “We had a bad night, we lost two little boys.” And, that would be the extent of my talk with her.
My wife will never accuse me of being a great communicator in any aspect of our lives. However, when it comes to bad calls at work, I try to shield her from the “gory details.” The night after this call, my lieutenant was out playing with his band at a local pub, and a bunch of the crew and our wives went out to support him and have a few drinks to shake off our tough night. Once I was around the guys, my mood changed; we told stories and busted chops like any other day—we were tough again. Maybe I felt better around them because I knew they all had the same thoughts in their mind: those little boys and that fire. I don’t keep things from my wife to protect her; she knows what we go through, and we talk about work all the time. She understands if I don’t get too deep in the details because I can’t “unsee” what I saw, and I don’t want her to have those images in her mind.
In many cases, we have been offered critical incident stress debriefings (CISDs). Unfortunately, I recall many times when no one would talk during the debriefing. I felt bad for the CISD team because it seemed like they were wasting their time. Everyone wants to keep their thoughts, beliefs, struggles, and memories inside for fear of opening up in front of others because of what others may think or say if they show any weakness. The common theme among all of us was that we are good, and we can handle it.
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The realization that we “must do better” at taking care of our own and reminding me to show sympathy around the firehouse came during training our most recent recruit class. Every time an LODD occurred, we would post it on the bulletin board because we wanted the recruits to understand what we are telling them is real when it comes to the dangers of this job! We want them to be prepared for the job—mentally and physically—and to know the story; regardless of whether you are from Georgia, New York, or California, we are all family.
Two of the LODDs we posted within the 12 weeks were members who took their own life. Both seemed to be larger than life, respected members of their departments with good home lives. It made me think about my own path and what “I” can do better—in my job and in the fire service in general—to help make a difference.
Recently, a chief officer presented “Courage to be Safe” to this same recruit class, which discusses the 16 Life Safety Initiatives and how they relate to our department. During this discussion, a recruit asked, “If I can’t talk to the guys or my wife, and no one uses professional help, who do I talk to?” When he asked, the chief thought about the comment and responded by saying that if something is bothering you, odds are it is bothering the rest of the crew. If we ever feel that something is affecting the way we think or it controls our thoughts, talk to someone, anyone. Maybe it is a brother or maybe it’s simply a stranger who will listen. Maybe it is one of your department chaplains, the employee assistance program (EAP) provided by your department, or the local union representatives. Whatever you do, don’t be afraid to “get it off your chest.” Simply writing this article has helped me get it off my chest.
A Call to Action
We believe there are several items we need to move into the “Call to Action” category. Although we understand that we are a different breed, we think differently, live differently, breathe differently—we are not invincible. We must preach and emphasize that it’s acceptable to ask for assistance. Remove the stereotypical thinking that someone is weak for asking for help. As leaders, we (of all ranks) must stand up for each other and initiate the actions to help a brother or sister in need. We cannot just play dumb regarding what we see and then hope it goes away. We owe this to our families, our wives, our kids, and our fire service family.
- Set up an EAP or CISD team if your department has not already done so. (See https://www.everyonegoeshome.com/resource-area/initiative-13-mental-health.)
- Develop an understanding between your crew members that no one keeps anything from each other, and stand firm on that belief. Never criticize or publicize what is discussed in the firehouse.
- Take the time to get to know your crew and their families. Meet for dinner as a crew or plan trips together.
- Develop a local organization such as a local F.O.O.L.S. chapter where like-minded and motivated firefighters can get together and share what is on their minds.
- Discuss with your spouse what happens at the job and figure out the best way to communicate your thoughts. There may be the opportunity to discuss what occurred without placing every detail in the story, yet there are enough details where your spouse will understand. From a relationship standpoint, you cannot just shut down and not talk to your spouse. Find a way to make it work; it may be that you need a third person to help navigate how to improve communications. It doesn’t mean you are weak—it means you are like the rest of us.
- I keep my volunteer department radio on for all county pages so my wife can hear what calls are going on and so she can ask questions as she feels comfortable. This has allowed us to better communicate concerning what we may see or deal with on a day-to-day basis.
- If you want to be a leader—formal or informal—you must step outside your comfort zone. You should be the one to open up to the membership. Do not take anything for granted, and be the change factor in your crew, station, and department. Be the “barn boss.” You may just save someone’s life.
Early in our careers, sympathy was hard to come by and even harder for us to accept. However, the more experience we gained, although admirable from one point of view, has a downside for what we endure mentally. We share this article to set the expectation of being a change factor. “We” are not afraid to say “we” all need help from time to time. Set the expectation with your crew and lead by example so that we all our protecting our brothers and sisters.
Sean Eagen is a 19-year fire service veteran and a lieutenant with the Buffalo (NY) Fire Department assigned to Engine 21 on the city’s east side. He is also a part-time instructor for the New York State Office of Fire Prevention and Control Special Operations Branch.
Brian Ward is the author of Barn Boss Leadership, managing editor and author for the Training Officer’s Desk Reference, and an FDIC instructor. Ward facilitates programs around the country on emergency response, training, and leadership topics in the public and private sector. He is the founder of BarnBossLeadership.com.