A Firefighter’s Mental Size-up

A Firefighter’s Mental Size-up

I’m sure this topic will cause a lot of debate and will have people in an uproar, but I want to discuss the elephant in the room: mental health.

On the fireground, we know we need a strong size-up for an effective initial fireground operation. However, we don’t take this same approach to our firefighters and their operational readiness. We can focus on training and having the best equipment possible, but if we are not mentally healthy, we will lose some of our effectiveness. Firefighter suicides are just now really coming to the forefront, and it’s hard to believe that we, as a fire service, are so set in our ways and traditions that we are still rather dismissive about the mental health subject. “We’ve done it this way for hundreds of years”; “That’s not how the old guys did it”; and “Maybe you are not tough enough” are statements we have heard around the station. We have such a macho persona that we don’t want to allow anyone to see our vulnerability.

If we are just now focusing on firefighter mental health and the alarming number of firefighter suicides each year, how many unfortunate incidents have happened before we began to pay attention? How many incidents have we “covered up” so as not to tarnish the reputation or for benefits? If we are not mentally healthy, how do we ensure we are making the best decisions and are not taking unnecessary risks?

I’m not talking about your average distractions. I’m talking about the distractions on which we focus so much energy and typically hide from others. You know – post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, suicidal thoughts, anger issues, nightmares, drinking, and drug use. The first priority for any firefighter is life safety. When will we make it our priority on and OFF the fireground? If we are not mentally healthy, we take unnecessary risks, push too hard, push too far, and convince ourselves we are broken and can’t be fixed.

We must realize that the skeletons in our closet affect our effectiveness. It is time for the American fire service to be proactive rather than reactive. There is a reason that firefighting gear and health are more advanced in Europe and Canada. They have embraced the change. I’m not saying that the American fire service is bad or that we need to forget our traditions, but I do believe we need to be more realistic and openminded about safety and tactics. If I am not mentally healthy enough to take care of myself, how can I effectively take care of others? We need to understand that strength can be found in our weakness and that we must stop belittling those who have the courage and strength to say, “I am struggling,” or who care enough about the brotherhood that they look at their peers, recognize they may have an issue, and guide them in finding the right assistance. It may be as simple as knowing that a peer can speak with you without being judged or just knowing he is alone. It could be the assistance of a peer support group or counseling; regardless, we need to actively do a mental health size-up on all of our people.

I have developed a size-up, DADS, which stands for the following:

Debrief: Discussing concerns – personal or run-related – in an open, honest, no-repercussions atmosphere.

Ascertain: See if someone is struggling or holding back through these debriefing conversations.

Direct: Guide the person in the direction of seeking help if needed (mental health assistance).

Safety: Support each other. We all have demons.

Jim Mayfield
Captain, Training Officer
Georgetown Township (IN)
Fire Protection District

Comparative progress

Much technological progress has been made since colonial times. How has the fire service progressed during this same period? The fire service has gone from bucket brigades and fire wagons drawn by volunteers to modern, efficient, powerful fire engines capable of delivering firefighters to the scene of an incident in just minutes. There have been major advances in fire apparatus, equipment, protective gear, and training. However, fire protection for residential customers has not changed. Manual fire suppression methods are still employed in the form of delivering firefighters, apparatus, and equipment to the scene of a fire only after firefighters are notified of its presence. Is there a better way?

Manual fire suppression necessitates that a combination of variables come together in just the right way for successful life and property preservation: timely notification of the presence of a working fire; efficient dispatch; proximity of the fire to a fire station; quick response time; location and size of the fire in the structure; and, finally, the overall efficiency and training of the fire department.

Must all these variables be ideal for a successful outcome? Not necessarily; however, as some, or even a single one of these variables, stray far from ideal, the chances of a successful outcome decrease. What does that mean? It means that even the largest, best equipped, most highly trained fire department in the world, even if located next door to the structure fire, will fail to save the fire victim or property if the fire department is not notified of the fire immediately. Conversely, a poorly trained, inefficient fire department may also fail to save a fire victim and property even if all the other variables are in its favor. What can we do to help neutralize these variables? The fire service needs to change from a manual fire suppression method to an automatic fire suppression method.

Automatic fire suppression comes in the form of automatic sprinkler systems.

Sprinklers immediately respond to a fire while it is still small; they activate and control the spread of heat, flames, and toxic smoke while simultaneously activating the fire alarm system to alert the building’s occupants and notify the fire department. In approximately 90 percent of the incidents reported, a single sprinkler controlled the fire in its early stages before it spread and caused severe injury or death to people and catastrophic damage to property.

Only hours before I wrote this letter, tragedy struck in a fire in Oak Grove, South Carolina, in which two adults and two children perished. This fire is an example of a scene where the variables for a successful outcome were not there; the fire was beyond the fire department’s control. In this case, the preliminary reports indicate that the fire department faced a fully involved structure fire and that its only option was to battle the fire from the exterior. I do not have all the facts, but it seems as if an automatic sprinkler system would have made a difference. What seems obvious is that when the fire department arrived, it had no chance of saving anyone still inside the structure. (The complete story is at http://bit.ly/2nHOskX.) Yet, there is organized resistance against legislation to mandate the installing of automatic sprinkler systems in residences in 31 states. Why?

William Smith, FSI I, II; CFPS
Warren, Ohio

A welcomed gift

Last year, I purchased a subscription to Fire Engineering for my son, who is a Ph.D. mechanical engineer and the chief of the fire laboratory at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, not knowing if it would be something he would read or if it was geared more toward firefighters. He loves the magazine and says he has learned a lot from it. So, I am reordering it for him this year too.

Robyn Adams
Via E-Mail

In approximately 90 percent of the incidents reported, a single sprinkler controlled the fire in its early stages before it spread and caused severe injury or death to people and catastrophic damage to property.

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