Dealing with PTSD in the Fire Service

The documentary Burn opens with the line, “I once heard a Detroit firefighter say “I wish my mind could forget what my eyes have seen.” I’ve been thinking about that statement for a while now and have come to appreciate someone else saying and thinking the same thing as me. I’ve been in the fire service now for more than 20 years and have seen my fair share of pain and suffering, and have been left questioning why these things happen. The longer you are in the fire service–and particularly if you start a family of your own–certain calls seem to hit home more than others. Like the Detroit firefighter, I too wish my mind could forget what my eyes have seen.

Keeping It Inside
Most firefighters won’t let you know that a call bothered them when, in fact, the details (and how it relates to their own family) may be eating them up inside. Most firefighters don’t talk about the details of their shift with family when they get home. I think this is because they try to protect their families from the world of pain and suffering they see every day. Although being a firefighter is one of the noblest of callings, it does take its toll on our mind, body and soul.

When I first got into the fire service, if you said someone was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), everyone would look puzzled because they had no idea what that meant. I was brought up to believe that firefighters are rough and tough and can take anything the world can dish out. My dad, a retired lieutenant of the Fort Worth (Texas) Fire Department with more than 30 years on the job, certainly felt this way and expected me to as well. It wasn’t until after my dad retired that he really opened up to me about the things he couldn’t forget and how he wished there was someone he could have talked with to help him carry the burdens and nightmares he lived with for so long. To this day, my mother still doesn’t know the things both my dad and I have seen or been around and probably never will.

Only recently has the military started to understand the toll that war takes on our soldiers and that PTSD is real. Just like the soldiers fighting overseas, firefighters are on the front lines here in the states, defending and protecting every day, exposing themselves to danger and seeing things most people can’t even imagine. Firefighters are often exposed to traumatic events year after year without any debriefing or counseling. We all have either experienced a major traumatic event on the job or know someone who has. This traumatic event could involve anything, from a firefighter who’s also a new father and is unable to save a young child from a burning house to a firefighter who is tasked with picking up dead bodies after a tornado.

Signs of PTSD
PTSD is very real, and a lot of firefighters suffer from it but have never been clinically diagnosed. It is our job as fellow firefighters, officers and chiefs to look for the signs of PTSD and help sufferers get the help they need.

Some of the signs include:

– Anger and irritability

– Guilt, shame or self-blame

– Substance abuse

– Feelings of mistrust, betrayal, alienation and loneliness     

– Depression and hopelessness

– Suicidal thoughts and feelings

– Physical aches and pains

For a firefighter, these symptoms could come on rapidly, or they could take weeks or years to appear. We owe it to every firefighter on the job today to not only keep them physically healthy but also mentally healthy. After all, firefighters are one of the most important resources we have–and they’re members of our extended family.

How to Help
There are some simple ways to help firefighters after they’ve been exposed to traumatic events. First and foremost, talk to them either one-on-one or in a group setting, such as with a stress debriefing team.

On March 1st of this year, the National Fallen Firefighter’s Foundation (NFFF) introduced a new behavioral health model as one of the 16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives. This behavior health model was written to change the way the fire service assists firefighters on the path to healing. It is based on the concept that no two firefighters will necessarily have the same reaction–not even to the same call. Firefighter Life Safety Initiative #13: Behavioral Health is one of the initiatives developed over the last six years as part of the NFFF’s commitment to preventing firefighter line-of-duty injuries and deaths.

Over the last few months, several articles have been written about the different ways firefighters, officers and chiefs can help firefighters with PTSD. Bill Carey recently wrote two articles that examined how this initiative focuses on the mental health of firefighters and better ways to find those needing help sooner. (Find the articles here: A New Approach to After-Action Reports, Leave the Baggage Behind)

Also, don’t judge the firefighter who needs to talk to someone about the event that has affected them. We in the fire service need to change our perception of those who ask for help so that firefighters don’t feel like they need to keep things bottled up. Yes, we may appear rough and tough and able to handle anything, but the reality is we are only human.

Final Thoughts
Firefighters need to know it’s okay to have an emotional reaction to a traumatic event and that they can talk about it with other firefighters or with medical professionals who are educated in treating PTSD. It’s very possible that there are members of your department, or even you, who may be suffering from PTSD–there is no shame in this.

PTSD is real and can tear a family apart, cause you to lose your job or even drive some to suicide. I encourage everyone in the fire service to reach out to one another after each run and talk. Watch for the warning signs and be there for one another.

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