Opening Ceremony Keynoter Dan DeGryse Offers Straight Talk

In his “Straight Talk” keynote address this morning at the Opening Session, Daniel DeGryse, director of the Rosecrance Florian Program and a battalion chief in the Chicago (L) Fire Department, celebrated the fact that Mental Health was now a prominent topic at FDIC International. He advised audience members to get on their cellphones and, “Send the message that it is okay to talk about this issue at home, at work, and at FDIC.”

RELATED: The Rosecrance Florian Program | A Culture of Acceptance: Up Close with the Rosecrance Florian Program

DeGryse’s objective was to share with the audience how to “think better, feel better, and be better.” He noted that it took decades and the courage and initiative of many predecessors to bring about advancement in fireground tactics, structural firefighting gear, and equipment. As far as mental health awareness and education are concerned, the fire service is now [quoting Chief Bobby Halton] “at the beginning of the beginning.”

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He explained: “Our career, like a career in the police and military, will change us and affect the person who entered the academy excited, anxious, proud, and willing to do the job.  We will repeatedly witness and experience trauma in ways that everyday citizens do not.” He quoted Jeffery Denning, a decorated war hero and the author of Warrior SOS: “Whether there are subtle changes or drastic ones, no warrior views life the same after engaging in the things of battle.”

Part of the problem, he added, is that fire service members are not taught how to process the disturbing sights of victims and observers and their reactions or their own reactions to such experiences. “Our mission to protect life and property can come with a price on our mental well-being that affects all aspects of our lives. Everyone in this room can close their eyes at any moment and picture a scenario they experienced in their career and the feelings attached to it.

“We need to modify the thoughts and perceptions of being the tough, rugged, strong, and resolute individuals and what that means,” DeGryse asserted. “It is difficult to completely pursue leadership, have pride on the job, and strive to be our best selves unless we first address our mental health.” He asked audience members to “use your personalities, experiences, and characteristics in a way that promotes well-being for all of us. Model behaviors useful to your success; demonstrate vulnerability, encourage others to do the same, and mentor those around you as you see opportunity.” The fire service, DeGryse said, is “learning that we are physically, mentally, and emotionally affected by our experiences, and we need to acknowledge this and take direction on how to address it.”

Modeling, Vulnerability, and Mentoring

DeGryse advocated that fire service members engage in “modeling,” is a form of learning in which individuals ascertain how to act or perform by observing another individual. He pointed out that it is just as important to assess for fitness of duty every individual standing beside them each day as it is to inspect their gear, tools, and equipment. Supervisors, he said, should engage their coworkers and subordinates as part of their morning duties—ask, “How are you doing?” And, he cautioned, “really mean it.” It should be a greeting to which you anticipate a response.  He offered an example of how a simple greeting can become a meaningful encounter. All—from the candidate to the chief–are responsible for the direction in which your physical and mental health are heading, DeGryse said. “I ask you to be a model and walk the walk we are discussing today. Let’s lead by example and model the behaviors we want to see in our coworkers.”

Addressing vulnerability, DeGryse said it is not comfortable to talk about being susceptible to physical or emotional attack or harm, and fire service training teaches that how not to be vulnerable or to put yourself or your team at an unreasonable risk. “I believe differently,” he countered. “We should make an effort to be emotionally vulnerable, to be open to discussing and processing with our peers and families on a regular basis what we encounter as firefighters and paramedics …. These critical events we encounter don’t go away after we leave the scene. We have grown accustomed to masking our feelings and emotions …. we’ve created a mask, a superhero façade, and a cycle of blocking out emotions and feelings, which will negatively affect our health and well-being unless we provide an outlet.” He urged: “Practice being vulnerable. Share your stories, your fears, your guilt, your shame. It’s human to have these feelings, and you don’t have to do it alone.”

DeGryse walked the walk himself. He related how making himself vulnerable was “life-changing”: It is difficult to share that there was a time when my wife, despite her love for me, probably didn’t like me very much and didn’t look forward to my coming home after my day at the firehouse. Unfortunately, many days I would come home distant and abrasive even though that was not my intent. My four children would look forward to having their Dad come home to play, and my wife looked forward to spending time with me. However, when I left work and returned home, Dad and husband Dan did not walk through the door. It was the firefighter and peer counselor who came home–tired Dan, distracted Dan, the Dan who had too many things on his mind. This went on for years until we saw a marriage counselor. Our openness and our ability to share took courage, and it saved our marriage, me, and my relationship with my children. It has been a slow, steady climb.”

He also shared that his father, a veteran of the Marine Corps and a retired sergeant from the Chicago Police Department following a 32-year career, has battled alcoholism and bipolar disorder–a chronic condition that brings unusual shifts in mood, energy, and activity level–during his career and still struggles with severe depression while maintaining sobriety.

“Mentoring,” DeGryse said, “is a relationship in which a more experienced or more knowledgeable person guides a less experienced or less knowledgeable person. My mentor was the senior man in the firehouse when I was a candidate. He was a veteran of the job and expected me and the rest of the company to do our job and no more. He would speak calmly whether he was in the kitchen or on the fireground. He was the firehouse treasurer, the driver of the truck, the roof man, the barn boss, and a firefighter who everyone else aspired to be like. If you wanted to learn something, he was willing to teach; all you had to do was ask. A mentor can be anyone.”

DeGryse ended his presentation with this advice: “In an effort to stay connected, reach out to your coworker, your friend, your spouse, your son, daughter, Mom or Dad, or someone here while you are at FDIC. Ask them the simple, yet powerful, question, ‘How are you doing?’’’

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