Recently, for the first time in my life, I looked at the fire service from an outside view. I thought back over all the firefighter deaths I had been a part of; some of these deaths were from natural causes, some were unexpected accidents, some were line of duty and some were suicide. As I reflected, I realized that I had been blind to my surroundings and not taking note of something tragic that was going on in our profession.
Nearly every case I reflected back on, involved firefighters burying themselves in alcohol. In other words, firefighters used alcohol to kill the pain of a firefighter’s death, to bury the memory of some terrible 911 call, to get through a relationship issue, or for some reason that simply can’t be explained.
I was so conflicted over my feelings regarding alcohol abuse I decided to have an open conversation with my entire fire/EMS team. I wanted them to know what I was seeing and I wanted them to know that firefighter deaths, terrible 911 calls, and family relationship problems do not give the green light to binge drink, take pills or to use alcohol as an antidepressant. I wanted my team to see that their leader understood that no one is perfect, and it was OK to ask for help. I wanted the team to know that asking for help would not result in retaliation, but true compassionate help from myself and our town.
For my entire career the word firefighter and alcohol have been synonymous. It’s like saying butter and bread, they just go together. Drinking alcohol after hours is something that many firefighters brag about and even plan their lives around. Drinking alcohol in excess is sadly a culture that is ingrained into the fire/EMS business, and seemingly expected in every happy, or sad event. Not all firefighters drink alcohol or take opioids, but the truth is, many do and struggle with keeping it all in check.
As a chief I believe there is no greater brotherhood than the United States Fire Service. I have seen the fire service step up to the plate and come together so many times. There is no one any prouder than I am to be a part of such a great service. I am always amazed of how quick and efficient the fire service can assemble resources on a fire scene at a moment’s notice.
The brotherhood is strong; right up until the point we have to confront our brothers and sisters about addiction. Tragically, too often we are slow to react and hope it goes away without our involvement.
If you are a chief officer or captain please know that someone in your department is struggling with an alcohol or opioid addiction. It does not matter how big, or how small your department is, it does not matter if it’s career employees, combination, or all volunteer, someone is struggling. There are a lot of things to be proud of in the fire service, but alcohol or substance abuse is not one of them. It’s time that we decide our culture needs to change and that only happens at the top. Because of that, I’d like to offer some help to those in a supervisor role.
Officers Are Often in The Know About Alcohol Abuse
Why address the officers specifically? Many times, as a fire/EMS shift officer, you find yourself knowing about an employee’s addiction. You learn of this information through rumors, personal observance or the employee asking you to cover for them. So often employees come to work on a Saturday or Sunday morning and ask their officer if it’s OK for them to go lay down for a while. You know the entire time that they are hung over from the night before and simply need to sleep it off. You may have even seen pictures on social media of your employee partying it up, six or seven hours before shift. If you are a supervisor (officer) and allowing employees to come in and sleep it off, and stay on shift; just know that you are enabling this behavior. You are helping them gradually destroy themselves, the department, possibly a relationship with their family or even worse, possibly helping play a part in an eventual alcohol related death.
Don’t Turn A Blind Eye to Those Who Are Struggling
It’s not uncommon for a supervisor to want to help their employee, but we need to help them the right way. Turning a blind eye to an employee’s addition is not the right way. I truly believe many times we supervisors don’t address addiction problems with employees because of many reasons. The word “You” as follows, really means, “supervisor:”
- You don’t want to take the chance of being wrong.
- You don’t want confrontation.
- You don’t want to lose a friend.
- You are afraid of what you may find out.
- You feel it’s none of your business.
- You are afraid that other officers are not going to agree with your approach.
- You are afraid of being labeled as a “by the book officer.”
- You are afraid that you may have to do something outside of the normal officer job description and you do not have a laid-out procedure in your personnel policy, so therefore you are afraid to move forward with assisting the team member.
What you may not know is that as a supervisor you have some special powers. You have the ability to see the future. I am not referring to being a psychic; but you have past experiences to pull from. You have seen what’s happened to fire/EMS employees in the past, when they behaved in certain ways. You also have the power to act; to do something instead of stand back with your fingers crossed that it will all work out. Ask yourself, when is the last time that you spoke to one of your team members, one on one with another supervisor, and let them know what you were seeing and feeling?
- Did you tell them that you, or other team members had smelled alcohol on their breath?
- Did you tell them that they are close to getting a DWI?
- Did you tell them that they are close to hurting someone else?
- Did you tell them that you know why they have to go to bed as soon as they get to work?
- Did you tell them that they are slowly killing themselves and the relationships with their family?
- Did you tell them that the addiction will eventually lead to poor job performance, absenteeism and maybe even lead to termination?
- Did you tell them that you held the keys to numerous resources that could help them get through this addiction!
- Did you tell them that if they wanted to go to rehab; their job would be waiting on them when they come back?
Proactively Have the Tough Conversations Before It’s Too Late
We as officers cannot keep waiting to have these conversations until after the employee has been charged with DWI, their life has spun completely out of control, their work performance is in the toilet, or worse. The time to reach out is now. There is nothing wrong with having a compassionate conversation with your department or individual members. There is nothing wrong with taking the chief’s hat off to show your staff you care. In fact, what if “Chief” didn’t just mean boss. What if it also meant someone who cared about their well-being in this area like we care about their ability to perform agility tests. There is nothing wrong with having a compassionate conversation, but there is a lot wrong with passively turning a blind eye to someone who is suffering and likely feels trapped by their addiction.
Aim at Changing Culture, Not Just Individuals
The fire/EMS service did not advance in all the positive ways that it has overnight. It also did not unfortunately become synonymous with alcohol abuse overnight. We have to realize that, as someone once said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast!” Changing individuals one by one is powerful, but simultaneously, an unhealthy culture will continue to produce more honorable men and women who join our profession and fall prey to this terrible addiction.
What are the unhealthy cultures that we need to be fighting to change. I think most of what keeps people trapped in their addiction is a combination of pride and shame. Fire/EMS members are mostly proud individuals that do not like to show weakness or vulnerability. They feel like their coworkers and families have this high expectation of them and they cannot let anyone down.
Many will never come forward unless you reach out to them; they feel their status will be affected, or they will not get promoted because they showed weakness.
Additionally, so many fire/EMS members feel that being upfront about an addiction will cause irreparable shame to them, and their family; therefore it takes a complete life changing event for them to come forward. Will they be mocked by staff? Will they be isolated socially from events with their coworkers? Will they be seen as too weak to handle the job? We have helped to create this shame-fueled environment through years of intentionally or unintentionally telling those in the fire service that, “Crying is for sissies.” We have built a culture where those who need help may feel ashamed to ask for it. The tragic irony is that these are the men and women who rush out the door time after time to help others who need the help they themselves are ashamed to ask for.
Know That “Rock Bottom” Looks Different for Everyone
My family doctor once told me that people who have addiction problems will only get help when they hit bottom. I thought that makes perfect sense. When they get to their lowest point, they, will reach out or accept help. Little did I know every one of us have a different bottom. The bottom for me may not be quite as low as someone else’s. Some people’s bottom may be when they lose their job, a spouse or family ties. Some people’s bottom may mean losing everything, such as their family, their job, their home, their health and may even be living on the street.
Knowing where the bottom is for a coworker is not very clear at times. But, as leaders we can often see the bottom coming up quickly for someone in our agency. In some cases, a fire/EMS employee’s behavior may be so erratic that everyone in the department can see disaster coming.
Act Now and Have A Long-Term View of Success
I am asking officers to get in front of this and make sure that your team knows you are there for them. None of us as leaders are perfect. We are all flawed in one form or another. Fire/EMS members that struggle with addiction can still be good employees and leaders. We need to remember why we hired them. Our team should know that we will help them and put them in touch with the resources that can help. Officers, don’t be afraid of what others may think of you for helping someone. Be willing to go the extra mile to hopefully bring back that person that you were so impressed with at one time. Additionally, we need to have patience. People who are addicted to alcohol or opioids did not get that way in a few weeks or months. They will also not get well in a few weeks or months. Do your best to not let them hit the bottom and be patient with them as they progress towards overcoming their addiction.
Expect to Encounter A Lot of Denial
As a chief officer I know from many years’ experience that we cannot help everyone. The fire/EMS member must be willing to accept help. They must have family, or coworkers that are willing to support them while in rehab or counseling. It is also helpful if you have a department chaplain that can provide guidance. Nearly every conversation I have with someone who has an addiction problem, starts off by the person saying “You’re wrong, I don’t have a problem. Chief, I got this, don’t worry about me.” Leaders please understand that most people are in denial and don’t want to be that person that they have responded to many times on the street corner. Don’t give up on your team member if your first approach goes wrong, or you don’t get the answers you want to hear. Just remember, in reality you were still somewhat successful because now they know the door is open to come in and talk to you.
Aggressively Respond to Someone Who Does Asks for Help
Whenever a team member decides to come in and ask for help, you must immediately act! Never sit on it; waiting days later to get back with them. If you try to assist your team member indecisively, dragging your feet, remember the team member may change their mind aboutwanting help, and an opportunity may be lost. Worse still, that will be partly your fault. If a team member asks for help, do the following:
- Drop what you are doing to help. Yes, I mean chief officers!
- Have resources ready, in other words know the right people to call.
- Contact your Human Resources Department and let them know you want to get one of your team members help.
- Assure the member they are doing the right thing.
- In some cases, you can assure the member that their job is waiting for them when they come back. This is especially true when they have been good employees and no criminal charges are pending.
One day one of your team members is going to need rehabilitation. It’s just a matter of time. They will need to leave everything, including their job for a short time. If you are a chief officer and have the opportunity to personally take one of your team members to rehab, please do it. If you have never loaded up one of your team members and taken them to rehab; you don’t know what you are missing. It is a life changing event for everyone involved. There will be tears, awkward moments of silence, nervousness, agitation, laughter, but the biggest thing of all; there will be hope. You will learn so much about your team member that you never knew and they will never be just an employee again. They will be someone that you connected with, and that you now understand more about their life. You will be someone who cared about them beyond their job performance. You will also learn that they are just like you. We all need help sometimes, so let’s do what we do best, help them before their life turns upside down.
In closing, maybe it is not just one of your employees that needs help. Maybe it is not just them who have fallen prey to the unhelpful culture of alcoholism. Maybe you as a leader are one of the ones who needs help. What should you do? I would encourage you to have the courage to get the help you need, not just for yourself, but for your department and all that we in the fire service hold dear. By admitting you need help, you will likely bust down years of pride and shame in a moment and pave the way for anyone else who needs help to admit it. Not to mention, you will help yourself. You are not just a leader in one of the most noble professions in our country, you are a person who matters and you too have friends and family who care about you.
Chief Fulk pursued his Bachelor’s of Science degree at Fayetteville State University where he graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Fire Department Management. He also attended the National Fire Academy for four years in Emmitsburg Maryland, where he graduated with the prestigious Executive Fire Officer Certificate.