Behavioral health: retaining our bravest

CarolinaFireJournal - Joe Palmer
Joe Palmer
04/21/2013 -

We are family. We never forget. And as such, we have a wealth of experiences only matched by a few other professions. The traditions and values we carry with us collectively have served us well and they fill us with memories both good and bad. It is a given that our longevity and success as firefighters is dependent on our overall health, training and experience. Therefore, the necessity of maintenance of skills and physical capability is self-evident and practiced daily. However, part of retention and our healthy navigation to retirement must be measured in our behavioral wellbeing.


Nowhere has this need been more clearly articulated than in the expression of the 16 Life Safety Initiatives and in particular Initiative 13 that states “Firefighters and their families must have access to counseling and psychological support.” To fulfill this endeavor and ensure our wholeness, the Carolina Fire-Rescue EMS Journal and a number of fire service leaders will present a series on Firefighter Behavioral Health focused on bringing to the responder the awareness of prevalent stressors and answers to what many of us feel and yet do not understand.

Over 28 years of active duty — visions, sights, sounds, and much to my wife’s chagrin, smells cross my path daily and bring with them memories of times gone by. I find it interesting how the smallest of things can at times bring for me something I haven’t thought of in years. Most of those places and times are positive and most I deal with by offering smiles or a shake of my head. But I have frequent times that I find it hard to explain to my daughters my reactions and thoughts — about them wanting to go to a particular place around town or a drive at a certain time of night or how I can laugh at something they don’t find funny. Try explaining why you don’t go in “that” restaurant or will not stay in a hotel without sprinklers, demand that things be turned off before we leave home, or can smell a pot of burned beans while driving down the road! How do I tell folks why I trade in my leather fire gloves frequently, or why I don’t like to talk about work when I get home? I am not sure that I ever will be able to explain to my granddaughters what “Pops” did when he was younger other than the superficial, “I was a fireman.” And I have had it good. I’ve not lost someone beside me in a fire. I’ve never commanded a scene with a LODD. Thank God.

But first responders have and first responders do. How we think of ourselves, our brothers and sisters, and how we deal with this reality must be healthy, and because it is real, we must be real too. Real in how we face the issue, talk with each other and professionals, and how we don’t dismiss the memories we have as “part of the job, so suck it up!”

Look for articles in this section that will help us understand our history; identify what stresses us in our lives and job; what signs we can see in each other; how we can communicate these issues; and how can we get help when we need it.

This section is and will be dedicated to the premise that First Responders are important! The job we do is tough. Tough people deserve even better tools, answers and help. Everyone goes home and goes home healthy!

Joe Palmer currently serves as the Executive Director of the SC State Firefighters’ Association in Columbia SC. Previously he served for 14 years as the Fire Chief for the City of Newberry, SC, where he still lives with his family. Joe is a Past President of the Firefighters’ Association.
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