One call away from the edge

CarolinaFireJournal - Shannon Pennington
Shannon Pennington
10/10/2014 -

Looking around the fire service, we are constantly told that fire fighting is a “stressful job.” Really? I had not noticed that. Who told you that?

Fire fighting, including medical, heavy rescue, hazmat and the list goes on, is a “target rich workplace where we are exposed to trauma on a regular routine basis as a part of our job.”

Most of us have more than adequate ability to cope with the runs and the trauma. So what happens when we get the one that “sticks with us?”

We have all been there in the work. You try to shake it off, and it doesn’t go away. As you go off shift it sticks with you and into the next shift cycle or call out. Some of those calls seem normal and, in fact, do normalize in your headspace. You are back to your sunny self, full of firefighter humor and wit. You know, the side you show to your buddies, your family and friends. All is normal again, and on you go.

Then you respond to another, and another, and another call with trauma injuries or multiple fatalities. Just another day on the job, and you do that job, until that one call. Now you are in the recovery cycle, reaching for your inner balance and it is not working. So now what?

You simply need to have a game plan, people. Think NFL or NHL. When they go to work on the field, they have gamed and practiced their moves. Believe it or not, stress in our line of work means we have to also have a game plan and practice it, so that when we do go out into the abyss of the cities and towns and rural areas of America, we stand a more than fighting chance when mental and emotional stress hits us.

If you are stressed, don’t fake it! The educational aspect of understanding stress and acute stress and post traumatic stress is simple and easy to do. Go to the Internet and go to your primary care doctor.

From this firefighter veteran with his PTSD point of view, here are a few basic tips:

Check in with your family doctor and discuss this with him or her. They are the first line of defense on what is going on with you, and they have the tools to help.

  • Start to look at how you are sleeping or not sleeping. Again, discuss with your doctor.
  • Slow down your off-shift activities. Get some down time recreation, do the stuff that keeps you balanced and do more of it.
  • Keep a log of your thoughts and how your day looks, and discuss it with your general practitioner.

Ask your doctor for a referral to a clinical type psychologist who is familiar with first responder trauma. The term to use is a Trauma Informed Clinician. Someone with the medical insights, depth of knowledge, and the understanding needed to connect with you. Go in for a few sessions while maintaining your work cycle and do the check up.

A few simple steps now will save you a lot of steps down the road if you go at this without help.

As a P.W.L.E. (Person with Lived Experience), the most important comment I can make here goes something like this:

“If a man can have his family doctor do a digital rectal exam in the office for prostate, and the woman can be checked out yearly in those unmentionable regions, why are we so uptight when it comes to having a psychologist or psychiatrist help us to understand what is going on in our heads and hearts?”

Yes, there is stigma about talking to a clinician. We continue to face “Stigma in the Service” and it continues to create a climate of fear and misunderstanding. That can be overcome by education and intelligent understanding of the work we do. The trauma that we take on over a long service career has an effect on our bodies and brain chemistry. The curtain of misunderstanding is slowly being drawn aside, much like the efforts of Toto, the little dog in the Wizard of Oz. He drew aside the curtain that hid the great wizard pulling the levers and strings to huff and puff and dazzle Dorothy and her friends.

The literature on stress, acute stress, and post traumatic stress since 9/11 contains hard learned lessons and information that makes us wonder why we continue to suffer the “Trauma without Treatment.” Let’s change that and get connected to the hydrant of information that is out there. By changing our thinking to a larger diameter, we increase our survival rate on the fire ground. Stress is a silent killer just like carbon monoxide; odorless and tasteless, but very deadly to our well being. Engage your emotional stress detector and listen to it when it goes off.

In closing, keep in mind the suicide rates in our service. The fight back continues. All that is needed is patience and a willingness to say to your brother or sister beside you: “How are you keeping?” Let’s talk about stuff and the big “IT.” Brother and sister up, just as you do in the smoke. When the emotional backdraft of the Blood, Sweat, and Fears hits you, your buddy is your best partner. Isolation kills. Isolation with your thoughts starts that process where the “perp arsonist” can kill us with the fires of our own mind and heart.

Guard your hearts and minds, folks. The job is not getting any easier to do. Stay safe with your physical and mental health on the First Responder Front Lines.

Shannon Pennington is the Executive Director and Senior Chief of the North American Firefighter Veteran Network. He is the author of several working papers on stress in the first responder community in Canada and the United States. He is a retired PTSD survivor after serving in the Canadian military (regular and reserves) and as a 26-year career line firefighter/medic with Local 255 IAFF. Pennington currently runs the web site for NAFFVN as an educational outreach to first responders — fire, police, EMS and dispatchers — with information that is up-to-date regarding occupational stress and recovery from Post Traumatic Stress. You may contact him directly at

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