Training – Outside the Lines

By Michael N. Ciampo

Vent, don’t vent; hit it from the inside, hit it from the outside; control the door; wash your gear; and use the “puck” when performing chest compressions – you have probably come across these topics in your training or reading lately. Each topic is deserving of a column in itself. Although much has changed in what we have learned from modern science, much also has remained the same, such as, “Ventilation should coincide with the application of water.”

Maybe some of the bickering on both sides of the argument is because departments differ in size and available staffing and respond to structures with varying construction types. In addition, maybe we aren’t doing all we can to provide realistic scenarios for our training, or our training is so old-school or budget-limited that we can’t train on everything we respond to daily.

This month’s editorial theme is training. I’ll admit that I thought training was the theme of our entire existence, so I’ll say this month’s spotlight is on training. Luckily for me, in the past 38 years, I’ve attended three fire academies: one as a volunteer and two in career metropolitan departments. I’ve attended numerous other classes and have achieved other certifications. Overall, I feel confident that the training I received shapes my actions at fire and emergency scenes, but I also wonder if our training provides us with the necessary venues to assist us after we return from those chaotic and horrific scenes to which we respond daily.

A few tours back, we responded to a run for an unconscious person. Arriving on scene, we found a middle-age gentleman lying unresponsive on the living room floor. As the paramedics and firefighters began their work, I could see from a scene size-up that after we interviewed the victim’s frantic son and elderly mother, we needed to remove them from the scene. Between their cell phone calls, crying, and scampering around the apartment, they needed to be isolated from the event unfolding in front of their eyes. Operating at this incident, I felt like I went from supervising the rescuers to becoming a social worker. We got the victim’s pulse back, and he was transported to the hospital in critical condition.

On the ride back to quarters, there was an eerie silence in the back of the crew cab, not the abundant chatter regularly heard. Once we arrived back at the firehouse, we were out of service for the members to restock and decontaminate the medical equipment. As a boss, I got to witness the members’ valiant efforts to work on this patient, and I let them know they did an outstanding job. I received the customary replies of “Thanks, Boss.”

Heading up to the office to complete the report, my mind started drifting back to what had transpired. I hoped the patient and family had a good outcome, but based on some of my crews’ facial expressions, I questioned whether the crew was okay and wondered how I could check on their welfare.

As I sat at the desk, I started to think about post traumatic stress disorder and firefighters. A district chief of a metropolitan fire department – an instructor and dear friend of mine – committed suicide a few months ago. He was the last guy I would have thought capable of doing something like that. Like many of us, he witnessed numerous traumatic scenes at fires and emergencies but never showed any signs of it bothering him. So that alone has many of us asking, “Why?” “How could he do that?” “Why didn’t he reach out to one of us?” The answers to these questions will most likely never be known, but they’ll continue to haunt us.

During the funeral services, those of us who gathered consoled, comforted, and supported each other the best we knew how. Many of us made pacts that if we ever needed to talk, we would reach out to one another or to one specific individual. As we left, the hugs of good-bye, “See you soon,” and “Stay safe” seemed tighter and more heartfelt than ever before. We went home, got back on our rigs, responded to calls, and got our minds back in the game; but for many, the slightest instance could easily trigger our emotions over the loss we suffered.

Many of us have lost friends, fellow firefighters, and fellow instructors – specifically some who died of 9/11-related cancers and one who died in a tragic car accident. Sometimes you wonder just how much of the on-the-job trauma you can take.

We as firefighters are going to go through a lot over the course of our careers. Each of us will handle the pain, pressure, and emotions differently. Unfortunately, some won’t be able to cope with all of what this job entails and we’ll never even know it – until it’s too late.

Before more tragedies occur, is it time for us as a fire service to offer behavioral health instruction, peer support, and grief counseling from the start? Think about it: We train on how to handle the emergencies and fires we respond to, but do we do enough to help extinguish the burning fires inside our minds? Plus, when you retire and don’t have the shift work, firefighters, and firehouse to rely on, how do you put together the loose pieces? Sometimes help is only a phone call away. Don’t be afraid to make the call. Your family, friends, and fellow firefighters will thank you.

MICHAEL N. CIAMPO is a 31-year veteran of the fire service and a lieutenant in the Fire Department of New York. Previously, he served with the District of Columbia Fire Department. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire science from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. He is the lead instructor for the FDIC Truck Essentials H.O.T. program. He wrote the Ladders and Ventilation chapters for Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II (Fire Engineering, 2009) and the Bread and Butter Portable Ladders DVD and is featured in “Training Minutes” truck company videos on www.FireEngineering.com.

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