By Ric Jorge
So you’re a hard-charging, fire-eating truck ape, not scared of anything–as a matter of fact, you fight what we fear. You tell your friends your job is snatching lives from the jaws of death and running into buildings that the roaches and rats run out of. Your collection of fire department T-shirts is surpassed in awesomeness only by the tattoos on your flesh depicting the 343. You’re a man’s man, and darn proud of it.
You hear the stories of brothers and sisters who are claustrophobic, and you chuckle. You scoff at the people not capable of making decisions; they seem to “freeze” when they are under duress. You “tsk, tsk, tsk” the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) report of the firefighter who made a mistake ventilating, setting the stage for the burns sustained by another firefighter that led to his death. You watch a video of our “brothers” on a fire where, tactically, they appear as though they do not know what they are doing. This video spreads virally from YouTube to Statter to Facebook. The comments by all the other “hard-charging, fire-eating truck apes” are often harsh criticisms, all in the name of better training and tactics “killing firefighters the old-fashioned way.” You succumb to the peer pressure and fall in line posting “train as if your life depends on it because it does.”
You read an article about a firefighter who rips off his mask in a fire and, standing up, he begins to run in an atmosphere he must know is toxic and fatal. You shake your head incredulously wondering, “What was he thinking?”
Then one day, everything changes. Something happens, and your world is turned upside down. What you were once so sure of seems to have abandoned you, leaving you wondering if you were ever that “good” at your job. Your breathing becomes accelerated at times, and the anxiety builds. Your ability to do the things you once were capable of doing has left you. You’re left feeling emasculated. You begin to avoid certain training exercises, maybe even making excuses for your new found “weaknesses.” These weaknesses seem to be gaining ground on you (maybe I’m just not drinking enough or puffing enough weed. Maybe I should conquer more infidelity to prove I am a man. If all else fails, there is always rage. If that doesn’t work, I’ll isolate myself. No one will ever know my secret. I’ll take it to the grave with me).
Does this sound familiar or far-fetched? According to researchers these are not isolated occurrences but very common occurrences in law enforcement, the military, professional sports, aviation, and the corporate world–not to mention rape, assault, or terrorism victims.
Why should the fire service be exempt? Ignorance. The fire service’s dirty little secret is firefighters get scared. Bad stuff happens, and it affects us. It builds within us and can have a synergistic effect.
Then one day it happens: Your armor cracks.
You try the employee assistance program (if you’re lucky enough to have it), and a woman or a mild-mannered man with a sensible manicure tells you you’re normal. Neither has ever heard the sounds we have heard, seen the sights we have seen, smelled the odors we have smelled, felt the heat we have felt, or knowingly placed their lives in harm’s way to help a complete stranger. What do they know? Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) m my foot! I’ve never been to war.
But, They Are Right
The truth of the matter is they are right, and you’re probably more normal than you think. How much tragedy can a person witness and experience before it affects them? Who determines what a tragedy is? Maybe it is just a bad experience, and not a tragedy. Maybe you barely made it out of the hallway into the stairwell as the floor flashed or a ceiling collapsed, or maybe you were pushed too hard in training as a recruit and you developed an existing fear into a platform for anxiety. Does it sound far-fetched that this could happen in training? Anxiety comes on regardless of whether the experience is real or perceived, and the training ground is where it can be mastered or cultivated.
To quote a term I learned from Chris Brenan, “‘Training scars’ are very real, and there is a good chance they will turn into monsters” (The Monster Within) if left untreated. Just as in the case of any other exposure to tragedy, it has a side effect; the name of that side effect is PTSD.
PTSD may lay in wait “dormant” until the right set of circumstances shows up. When that “vehicle” shows up, you will be hit by a most unpleasant set of side effects that you never want to experience. These side effects range from depression to suicide and all points in between. The process of PTSD will leave you doubting that you were ever any good at this job–or anything. It can be emasculating; and for type A personalities, that is a death sentence.
PTSD is not the same for everyone, which is a big reason it may go undetected until it is too late. What bothers one person may not cause another to flinch. PTSD is a disorder that can slowly lead to destruction or quickly take a life. It is a disorder that is a by-product of a long career of seeing man’s inhumanity to man and the innocent, senseless loss of life.
Fear takes many forms and does not have to be rational to take over your thought process. Fear (maybe from a previous experience or founded in a lack of confidence) is the precursor in the development of anxiety, which in turn causes your heart rate to accelerate. You’re physically taxed, and the anxiety adds to the increase in your heart rate. Irrational thought processing takes place, and your respirations get rapid and shallow. Your inability to think rationally will kill you. It has been the demise of more than 230 firefighters over the past 15 years, according the NIOSH firefighter line-of-duty death reports. There is a host of other symptoms such as tunnel vision, auditory exclusion, loss of small motor function, loss of bowel/bladder, and dry mouth, to name a few. These occurrences and symptoms are well documented in law enforcement and the military but are virtually invisible (undocumented) in the fire service.
I would like to clarify some misunderstanding about “types” of training. Confusing battles of attrition with training is not accurate. Training is where you develop a skill set; in the battles of attrition, you test your skills. Confusing these two will lay a solid foundation for failure and all the side effects that come with it. I am not saying endurance training is bad. There is a difference between teaching firefighters viable skills that they can develop over time and trying to survive extreme situations in realistic surroundings while pushing them to their limit or beyond. When skills are learned and the process of mastery over them begins, you may then confront endurance (testing).
Take, for example, boxing. If you have no experience in boxing, you would be out of your mind to step into the ring with a pro. If you did, there is strong evidence you might wake up in the emergency room with a broken nose, broken jaw, and both eyes swollen shut, and a fractured ego. What did you learn (other than that was a monumentally stupid idea)? You have to start with the most fundamental things first, like the jab and how to hold your hands when you throw a punch, how to throw a punch (generating power from the hips and not your arms), how to combine (setting the body up with punches to the head) punches effectively. As you refine those skills, more is added, such as how to bob/weave. As you refine these skills practicing on heavy bags, speed bags, focus mitts, and in front of a mirror (to help coordinate the techniques), it allows you to develop a rhythm and not telegraph your punches. The next phase takes you to sparring so you can learn rhythm, breathing under duress, and keeping your balance centered. As you get better, your sparring partners get better. Maybe one day you’ll be good enough to reach pro status. It’s a big reach, but I think you follow my example.
The technique of using a scenario other than your primary subject (firefighting) as an example allows your subconscious to make the associations with the techniques being discussed. If instead I were to use search and rescue, ventilate-enter-search, forcible entry, ventilation, hose/stream management, incident command, situational awareness, staying oriented, or any of the other hundreds of techniques we use in the fire service, it would have elicited ruminative responses, causing you to miss the point and justify your position rather than listen to object reasoning. Sometimes the point is best made with a neutral example, which is why I used boxing instead of firefighting.
In this article, we have touched on only four subjects: PTSD, training, thought processing, and learning. We haven’t even begun to delve into the development of neural pathways, motor (the brain) control, and a host of other complementary learning techniques that are components of this subject category.
Look objectively at the information. It may help you recognize some things in your life that have affected you. You may even find yourself agreeing with some of these things without completely grasping the concept, which is not uncommon. I think the subconscious recognizes things, similar to that “gut” feeling that has kept you alive all these years. Truth resonates when you hear it.
Ric Jorge has been a firefighter for Palm Beach County, Florida, since 1992. He is a state-certified instructor 1 and live fire instructor. He teaches extensively in ventilation, ladders, firefighter survival, flashover, rapid intervention, quint/aerial operations, high-rise structure tactics, search and rescue, hose management, room orientation, air management, and entanglement. He has been an instructor for his department for seven years and teaches throughout Florida.