Firefighter Family Tragedy and Loss

By Jeremy Hurd

When you ask children what they want to be when they grow up, you will hear fantastic, limitless dreams: They want to be a professional athlete, the President of the United States, a doctor, a teacher, a police officer, an astronaut, a zoo keeper, a veterinarian, and maybe even a firefighter. Regardless of what they dream of being, they are focused on the positives of that job and the endless possibilities lying before them.

You might be thinking right now, “I remember when I felt that way about this job or the career I’m in.” Why does the attitude regarding endless possibilities die with adults? Do you ever wish you had the outlook of a child?

The reality for adults is that the job we have has its own set of challenges and obstacles. The professional athlete finds out about the hard work needed to maintain a level of excellence and that the average career is short. The President knows more than half of the country thinks he’s doing a horrible job and should never have been elected, and he learns how many sleepless nights accompany being in the most powerful position in the free world. The veterinarian realizes it’s not just cuddling with cute animals all day long; sometimes it’s a downright nasty job. The firefighter learns that some of the calls are more difficult to forget.

The deaths and serious injuries to children are not a part of the job anyone is ready to face. The elderly or disabled person unable to care for himself brings about a range of emotions when you help him to clean up and realize he has no family who cares about him. Setting up command on a serious vehicle accident involving a relative of one of your fellow firefighters knocks you back and makes you rethink what you do. Seeing repeated news media coverage of the difficult call you ran makes it difficult to escape the inner turmoil you faced even days and weeks after the call has been completed.

The Fire Service Family

In the fire service, we have a family. Depending on the size of your department, it can be a rather large family. I work for Palm Beach County (FL) Fire Rescue (PBCFR); we have 1,500 employees. We also have in excess of 75-plus employees retiring on a yearly basis and the same number of new hires to replace them, which means our family grows by that number every year. This develops into a great support system when it is needed; and, unfortunately, we’ve gotten a lot of practice at supporting each other as a result of tragedies we have faced together. The reason we have had so many tragedies is that we have such a big family.

Big families are great! There is more excitement and energy, and every day brings a new adventure. However, big families also bring about more tragedy, because with more people there are more issues. Those 1,500-plus people each have family and friends of their own, and the more interconnected we become, the more tragedies we see.

There is so much focus on the tragedy that we are facing at work. This includes on-the-job injuries, line-of-duty deaths, and injuries off the job. However, we don’t prepare appropriately for the secondary family tragedies that affect us and many members of our department. These types of tragedies include injuries to family members in traumatic incidents that occur while on vacation, diagnosis of a firefighter’s child with a life-threatening condition, the divorce of a firefighter, a legal issue facing a firefighter’s family member, the death of a loved one, and so on.

During the tragedy, there is an outpouring of offers from firefighters. We are doers. We make things happen, and we like to be in control. This means when tragedy strikes, we know what to do. It’s how we are wired, and the training we go through embeds that mentality deep within our souls.

We want to help. Even when we don’t know what is happening or how to help, we are going to help! This is a remarkable characteristic that allows us to work in environments that would challenge many other individuals. It allows us to interact with individuals at their worst moment and with gruesome injuries and unspeakable sights while still functioning at a high level.

However, when taken out of the setting of a 911 call and thrust into a hospital waiting room or the home of a hurting firefighter family, we sometimes lack the ability to step back and see how we can really help the family. There are times when I quickly figured out that I was not the best person to facilitate spiritual and emotional healing for a family.

There are many reasons some people connect and others don’t. There may be similar backgrounds, experiences, or even belief systems, or there could be an aversion to religion that precludes a family from feeling comfortable receiving spiritual help. Regardless of the reason, we have to evaluate how to help before we jump in with both feet and go in firefighter mode when engaging with families who are hurting. The last thing we need to do is overwhelm them.

Preparing for Tragedies

How can a fire department prepare for tragedies? I have found that the following steps assist in helping us to prepare to help others.

Remind your personnel that tragedies will occur. This begins in the preemployment process. Our minimum standards for firefighters need to include a section on emotional wellness for the firefighter that addresses post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and post traumatic stress growth (PTSG). We spend a lot of time discussing how badly these difficult incidents can affect each of us (and rightfully so).

Fire Engineering Editor in Chief Bobby Halton recently pointed out that there also needs to be focus on PTSG, which helps our firefighters prepare for the potential growth that can come out of tragedy. This minimum standards curriculum also needs to include an explanation of the dynamics of the firefighter family. Many new hires are not aware of how strong this family can be and how deep the relationships from this group will grow. Both the new firefighter and the family of that firefighter must be educated on how to integrate these two families because those who do this successfully create bonds between members of the blood and firefighter families that will never be broken. Often, the two become one group working together to help each other in moments of tragedy and to celebrate together in moments of triumph.

The state of Florida has approved the adding of important points concerning firefighter emotional wellness in specific course curricula. There is a group working on this project right now so we can see future classes that teach our new firefighters how to best prepare to excel in moments of stress and difficulty.

This information should be part of the new hire’s orientation as well. Some departments have a one-day tutorial and then personnel start on the trucks and on shift. Other departments have a 26-week course where the new employee is trained and certified as a firefighter, an emergency medical technician, and a paramedic before beginning on the truck. Many departments fall somewhere in the middle. Regardless of how long you train and orient your new personnel, you should make sure they are given this training.

Have a plan for responding to tragedies. We know tragedies will come. We have policies and standard operating guidelines (SOGs) for almost everything in the fire service – incident command, uniform standards, leave requests, promotional rules, and hundreds of more items. There should also be a policy that covers how to respond to a tragedy. It can be an internal document that spells out the positions that need to be covered, the role of the chaplain, the role of clinicians, the roles of the administration and union, and the types of assistance available for the families that suffer a tragedy.

All of this necessitates discussion, time, and financial investment. Meetings will be necessary; maybe a committee will have to be established; and, ultimately, a group will be assigned to establish the policy. The time and financial investment are often overlooked. The union, administration, city or county officials, and every firefighter in the department want to help the family in difficulty; however, we can’t offer the world to every employee who faces tragedy. Policies must be in place to ensure that all employees are treated fairly. Our department has a benevolent association whose members donate time and money to assist members in need. A committee oversees these requests and assists when possible.

Assign one person to oversee the needs of the affected family. Our department has designated a “family liaison.” When tragedy occurs and it is clear a family or an individual has needs, this liaison is assigned to assist. This person basically becomes a “gatekeeper” for the family. Firefighters will come from all corners of the globe to help, and the liaison becomes the person to protect the family. All requests and updates go through the liaison. This allows the family to meet the emotional and spiritual needs relating to the tragedy while the liaison handles all other requests.

In our experiences, these responsibilities have covered a wide range of needs including but not limited to the following: packing for a move; helping with the family business; organizing meals for the family; updating the fire department with a daily e-mail; handling any media requests; cleaning the house; organizing a babysitting schedule for children; fixing vehicles; and much, much more.

Have a team ready to assist with all other needs. There needs to be a team of people prepared to handle the intricacies of a firefighter family tragedy or loss. This team can be made up of any positions within the fire service as long as each person has the proper training. Our team consists of a couple of union representatives who handle all the meals for the family, a chaplain who handles the spiritual needs and any funeral planning if necessary, a critical incident stress management representative who is ready to debrief or defuse crews or individuals, a peer support representative ready to come alongside a firefighter identified (or self-identified) as needing help, and an administrative representative to help with updates and further needs. Most of the requests for extra help are directed to our chief of operations and our union president, depending on the need. We also let our employee assistance program representative know the specifics of the situation so the counselors can be prepared for potential phone calls and visits.

Follow up with those who suffered the tragedy. Once the tragedy has passed (i.e., the family member has been buried, the firefighter has recovered from the injuries, the firefighter has returned to work, or enough time has passed that most everyone else has moved on), it is imperative to follow up with the firefighter and the family member involved. This will require individuals assigned to do follow-up. You can’t just leave it alone and hope that someone picks up the phone or drives over to visit the family after the tragedy has passed. You must designate people to accomplish this task.

You also need to create a culture in which your people feel comfortable to continue being in communication with those who have had a tragedy after the tragedy has passed. One of the messages I give at every funeral is to reach out to people when God places their name on your mind. There is a reason you’re thinking about them. Pick up the phone or send a text. Reach out on social media. Send a letter. Or maybe you could even go old-school and stop by for a personal face-to-face visit.

As you think about your department’s current plan for responding to firefighter family loss and tragedy, you may find that you have a long way to go to ensure your brothers and sisters will be taken care of. If so, don’t hesitate to reach out; we would be happy to share our time and resources to help you set up an effective program. If you have a robust program in place, share it with your fire service family.

We have taken huge strides in preventing injuries and making this job safer. The next step is to go from an awareness level of emotional wellness and actively pursue opportunities to set up programs to assist our firefighters when they face tragedy. Will you be prepared to take care of your own?

JEREMY HURD is an EMS captain with Palm Beach County (FL) Fire Rescue (PBCFR) and runs the department’s professional development program. He is also the PBCFR’s chaplain and has helped develop a comprehensive behavioral health program for the department. He is on the advisory board of the Rosecrance Institute’s Florian Program and is on the board of Trustbridge Hospice of Palm Beach County. Hurd is also enrolled in the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program and is pursuing a master’s degree in executive leadership disaster preparedness. Hurd teaches at FDIC International and hosts “Chaplain’s Corner” on Fire Engineering’s BlogTalkRadio.

Jeremy Hurd will present “Help, This Job Is Killing Me!” at FDIC International in Indianapolis on Friday, April 28, 2017, 8:30 a.m.-10:15 a.m.

When The Unthinkable Happens
When Tragedy Hits Home: One Family’s Ordeal
Firefighter Mental Health: The Job Is Killing Us 

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