Protecting Our Fire Service Family
By Sean Eagen and Brian Ward
When I walked through the Fire Academy door on April 13th, 1998 for my first day as a member of the department, I must confess I didn’t know what to expect. I can’t say I dreamt of being a firefighter growing up, in fact, I wanted to be a police officer. All these years later, I am glad I chose the fire department as it has blessed me and my family more than I ever imagined. The fire service has allowed me to network with family across the country and I’ve built relationships I’ll hold on to forever.
As a 24-year-old probationary Firefighter who was also the youngest of nine kids in a blue-collar Irish-Catholic family, I felt I had thick enough skin to handle anything the Brothers and Sisters could throw at me, no matter what it may be. Early in my career I would give the following example when talking about what the family means in the fire service. I would use it with friends, families, in classes and with anyone on the job who has not experienced it. I would explain it by saying that you can get anything you need from your Firehouse Family, you need to borrow a someone’s truck? “No problem.” Have a project at your house? “We’ll be there.” I would give several more examples and follow up with the one thing you can’t get in the firehouse; sympathy.
During my 19 years, my department has certainly experienced more than its fair share of tragedies both within our membership and with the citizens we serve from the calls we have ran. We’ve had career ending and life altering injuries. We had a Brother get killed overseas while serving our Country. We currently have members dealing with cancer and other occupational medical conditions. We’ve had LODD’s and unfortunately we have had Brothers take their own lives.
There are some of these memories which have haunted my dreams and the dreams of my fellow firefighters such as the call where we lost two young boys, who were about the same age as my boys. When I came home the next morning, my wife could tell that something was bothering me but all I would tell her was that “we had a bad night, we lost two little boys.” And, that would be the extent of my talk with her. My wife will never accuse me of being a great communicator in any aspect of our life. However, when it comes to bad calls at work, I try to shield her from the “gory details.” The night after this call my Lieutenant was playing out at a local pub with his band, a bunch of the crew and our wives went out to support him and have a few adult beverages to shake off our tough night. Once I was around the guys my mood changed, we told stories and busted chops like any other day – we were tough again. Maybe I felt better around them because I knew they all had the same thoughts in their mind, those little boys and that fire. I don’t keep things from my wife to protect her, she knows what we go through and we talk about work all the time. She understands that if I don’t get too deep in the details, it’s because I can’t “unsee” what I saw and I don’t want her to have those images in her mind.
We have been offered critical incident stress debriefing in many cases. Unfortunately, I recall many times when no one would talk during the debrief. I felt bad for the CISD Team, almost like they were wasting their time. Everyone wants to keep their thoughts, beliefs, struggles and memories inside for fear of opening up in front of brothers. Fear of what others may think or say if they show any weakness. The common theme amongst all of us was that we are good, we can handle it.
The realization that we must do better at taking care of our own and reminding me to show sympathy around the firehouse came during our most recent recruit class. Every time an LODD occurs we would post it on the bulletin board because we want the recruits to understand what we are telling them is real when it comes to the dangers of this job! We want them to be prepared for the job, mentally and physically. We want them to know the story and to know that regardless whether you are from Georgia, New York or California we are all family. Two of the LODDs we posted within the 12 weeks were Brothers who took their own life. Both seemed to be larger than life and respected members of their respective departments, they seemed to have wonderful home lives as well. It made me think about my own path and what “I” can do better, in my job and the fire service in general to help make a difference.
Recently, a Chief Officer presented “Courage to be Safe” to this same recruit class discussing the16 Life Safety Initiatives as they related to our department. During this discussion, a recruit asked the question, “If I can’t talk to the guys or my wife and no one uses professional help, who do I talk to?” When he asked, the Chief thought about the comment momentarily and responded by saying, if something is bothering you the odds are it is bothering the rest of the crew. If we ever feel that something is affecting the way we think or controls our thoughts talk to someone, anyone. Maybe it is a brother or maybe it’s simply a stranger who will listen. Maybe it is one of your department chaplains, the employee assistance program (EAP) provided by your department and the local union representatives. Whatever you do, don’t be afraid to get it off your chest. Simply writing this article has helped me get it off my chest.
Call to Action
We believe there are several items we need to move into the “Call to Action” category. While we understand we are of a different breed, we think differently, we live differently, we breathe differently – we are not invincible. We must preach and emphasize that asking for assistance is acceptable. Remove the stereotypical thinking that someone is weak for asking for assistance. As a leader, we (of all ranks) must stand up for each other and initiate the actions to help a brother or sister in need. We cannot just play ignorant of what we see and hope it goes away. We owe this to our families, our wives, our kids and our Fire Service Family.
· Set up an EAP or CISD Team, if not already developed. https://www.everyonegoeshome.com/resource-area/initiative-13-mental-health/
· Develop an understanding between your crew members that no one keeps anything from each other and stand firm on that belief. Never criticize or publicize what is discussed in the firehouse.
· Take the time to get to know your crew and their families. Meet for dinner as a crew or plan trips together.
· Develop a local organization such as a local FOOLS Chapter where like-minded and motivated firefighters can get together and share what is on their mind.
· Discuss with your spouse what happens at the job and figure out the best way to communicate your thoughts. There may be the opportunity to discuss what occurred without placing every detail in the story, yet there is enough details where your spouse will understand. From a relationship standpoint, you cannot just shut down and not talk to your spouse. Find a way to make it work and it may be that you need a third person to help navigate how to improve communications. It doesn’t mean you are weak, it means you are like the rest of us.
· I keep my volunteer department radio on for all county pages so my wife can hear what calls are going on and she can ask questions as she feels comfortable. This has allowed us to better communicate concerning what we may see or deal with on a day to day basis.
· If you want to be a leader – formal or informal, you must step outside your comfort zone. You should be the one to open up to the Brothers and Sisters, do not take anything for granted and be the change factor in your crew, station, and department – be the Barn Boss, you may just save someone’s life.
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