Cultural Brainwashing

According to Merriam-Webster dictionary the definition of “culture” is:

  • The beliefs, customs, arts, etc., of a particular society, group, place, or time.
  • A particular society that has its own beliefs, ways of life, art, etc.
  • A way of thinking, behaving, or working that exists in a place or organization — such as a business.

When reading these definitions, I can see how the fire and EMS service falls into the category of being defined as having their own cultures. Yet do we, as firefighters and EMTs, fall prey to cultural brainwashing?

As a retired fire captain, licensed counselor, and founder of Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance (FBHA), we track and validate firefighter and EMT suicides. We present workshops across the U.S and Canada on behavioral health and suicide awareness/prevention. One key component within our workshops is the belief we were “brainwashed” into acting with certain characteristics to perform these very difficult tasks that fall within our jobs.

When I say we have been culturally brainwashed it is not intended to mean it is a negative but more of a way of life. Since our first days in EMS classes, or fire academies, individuals were trained to be brave, strong, courageous, give help, don’t ask for help and handle your issues on your own. Does this sound familiar my brothers and sisters? It should because we were trained to be the best firefighters we can be. Our training included items like understanding fire behavior, understanding and reading smoke, fire attack, search and rescue, how to use tools, carry and place ladders and all other issues to survive on the fire ground. In our EMT and paramedic classes we were taught signs and symptoms, cardiac, drug therapy, intubation, intraosseous IV, and other information to keep people alive. Yet, what were we missing? How about the effects these traumatic calls will play upon us both physically and emotionally?

I am a firm believer that every fire and EMS academy needs to include education, information and resources on stress/anxiety, depression, addictions, relationship challenges, PTSD and suicidal ideations. Every officer should receive training on how to talk and listen to members on these exact subjects without feeling uncomfortable or feeling like a counselor. Education is the key and bringing awareness will reduce the fear of the unknown and for us it is the fear that if we admit we are suffering from these issues it does not make us a weaker firefighter, EMT or weaker as a human being!

This cultural brainwashing has always included that we must face our issues on our own. Do not burden anyone with our problems. Deal with them so we don’t allow anyone into our lives to help us. Unfortunately, the majority selection in dealing with our inner demons is to turn to addictions with alcohol, our major coping skill. It relieves our nightmares, pain, and helps us avoid dealing with the issues we are suffering from. It does not make us bad people, but it is that easy to get hooked on addictions.

FBHA has traveled hundreds of thousands of miles these past five years and has met thousands of firefighters and EMTs. These are good men and women who love doing what they do; yet we were never educated about the behavioral health aspects of the “job.”  One issue so many of us deal with is sleep deprivation. It would have been nice if our academy instructor had greeted us on that first day with “I hope everyone slept well last night because most of you will have sleep issues the rest of your lives.” Whether career or volunteer, sleep becomes an issue and how could it not when you are running calls in the middle of the night, come back to the station and then are dispatched again? How about the volunteers? You’re running the EMS or fire call at three in the morning and by the time you get back it’s time to head to your full-time job. I can remember many times exhausted and my mind always going back to the call from the previous night. But we kept on signing up for the night shifts!

It has always been my stance that I don’t want to change the culture of the fire or EMS services. I would be a firefighter 10 out of 10 times again but it is my wish to ENHANCE OUR CULTURES.  FBHA recommends the following steps to strengthen your departments:

  • Include behavioral health training in our fire and EMS academies.
  • Train officers on how to read signs and symptoms and then follow up with our instincts when we see someone suffering.
  • We include behavioral health training in all of FF I, FF II, and FF III state certifications.
  • All EMT and paramedic courses include behavioral health training.
  • Create behavioral health policies and guidelines.
  • Develop or train CISM and Peer Support Teams on suicide awareness/prevention.
  • Develop or train Employee Assistance Program counselors on our culture.
  • Create local resources of counselors and chaplains who work with fire and EMS personnel.
  • Create programs for families of firefighters and EMS services.

There are many other points and if you would like more information please do not hesitate to contact me at

Cultural brainwashing has occurred for years but now is the time to bring a greater awareness that being a firefighter or EMT brings dedication, strength and giving for our communities, but at times it can come with a price. We can get lost in all of the tragedies we see and deal with on a daily basis. This is our time to stand up and say I need help because we all should have a great career but also a better life!

Stay safe my brothers and sisters…

Jeff Dill travels the United States and Canada providing workshops to educate firefighters and EMS personnel about behavioral health awareness and suicide prevention. FBHA is the only known organization that collects and validates data on FF/EMT suicides across the United States. In addition, FBHA holds classes for counselors and chaplains to educate them about the fire/EMS culture.

Jeff holds a Master’s Degree in Counseling from Argosy University (IL), is a retired Captain from the Palatine Rural Fire Protection District in Inverness, Illinois. He is a member of the American Counseling Association, National Board of Certified Counselors, a committee member of the NFPA, NVFC and a Peer Support Instructor for the International Association of Fire Fighters.

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