Another of my grandfather’s favorite stories was the one about the Linwood Elementary School fire. Linwood Elementary was one of the frequent fire alarm calls. Usually the call came in at three in the morning. Week after week they got a call for a fire alarm at the school. Almost every time it was a false alarm, until that one night. The usual fire alarm came in but when the trucks starting heading down the hill of Huddle Avenue the whole roof of the school was on fire.
The firefighters more than likely took their time getting to the call and responding when the pager went off. My grandfather would say, “Remember, treat every call like it’s a working fire.” You never know when that fire alarm is going to be a fire. Every department probably has a similar story. And it’s human nature to fall into a habit with the repeated or frequent fire alarm call, expecting it to be the same thing every time.
Treating every sign of visible emotional distress in our fellow brothers and sisters should be looked at in the same way. It’s easy when we are with our familiar brothers and sisters to overlook signs of distress or to think of them as no big deal. With the many suicides we have in the fire service year to year, you can bet that almost every one of those fallen firefighters exhibited some warning signs. Weeks and even months leading up to it, their crew mates may have been given an alarm. What are some of the signs we can look for?
- Sleep Disturbances
- Dramatic Fluctuations/Changes in Eating Patterns
- Unexplained Physical Symptoms
- Difficulty Managing Anger or Controlling Temper
- Compulsive/Obsessive Behaviors
- Chronic, Tiredness, Lack of Energy
- Memory Problems
- Shunning Social Activity
- Lack of Sex Drive
- Mood Swings and Erratic Behavior Noticed by Everyone
These are some of the evitable red flags of someone who may be experiencing emotional distress. Some may only be noticeable by those living in the same house as the distressed firefighter, but other signs that the firefighter is struggling with some sort of emotional issue, we may see clearly.
If you are noticing any of the above symptoms in your fellow brother or sister, it may be time to see how you can help.
Though most of us are not clinicians or psychiatrists we still may be able to point someone in the right direction for help. The unique way we operate in a “Brotherhood” sense puts us in the best position to help each other.
One of the ways that we can help is have a “Kitchen Table Roundtable.” Bring all the crew together at the station for an intervention with the individual. Sitting down and offering your help in a non-confrontational way may go a long way. We can all take off the superman capes and express our care and concern. Utilize many of the resources available to departments that can help such as the Employee Assistance Program (EAP), Member Assistance Program and for the Volunteers the Fire/EMS Helpline 888-731-FIRE.
If you don’t feel comfortable sending one of your brothers or sisters to the EAP then locate a few local resources that you can refer the individual to. Offer to go to the first appointment with the firefighter in distress. Showing you truly care about the person can really go a long way to encourage him or her to reach out for help.
On the other hand, the worst thing you can do is cover for them and allow harmful behavior to continue. Though it is almost second nature to cover for our brothers and sisters, we have to realize that it is actually harmful for them. I know it seems as if you’re helping, but the only thing it’s doing is making the problem worse and worse.
If you can’t seem to reach the firefighter after talking with them and the problems seem to continue then it may be time to bring in the higher ups. Remember the most important part of the situation is the individual’s safety. If taking the problem to the higher up gets them help before they self-destruct or commit suicide then it needs to be done. This goes back to the fact that you should never cover up for someone who might need help.
Many outside resources are ready and waiting for the call to come in and help with firefighters struggling with issues. Utilizing these tools can help you learn how to offer help and get the individual to the right help. Look over some of these resources and see if they can be tools you might use. We help each other and risk our lives on the fire ground. Let’s start doing it off the fire ground.
N.V.F.C Member Assistance Program http://americanaddictioncenters.org/fire-services/
Life Safety Initiative 13 http://everyonegoeshome.com
Counseling Service for Fire Fighters www.csff.info
Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance www.ffbha.org
Firefighters Support Foundation www.ffsupport.org
Federation of Fire Chaplains http://firechaplains.org
International Critical Incident Stress Foundation http://icisf.org
National Fallen Firefighters Foundation www.firehero.org
The Code Green Campaign http://codegreencampaign.org/
National Volunteer Fire Council www.nvfc.org
Share The Load Program http://nvfc.org/hot-topics/share-the-load-support-program-for-fire-and-ems