There is a not-so-new epidemic sweeping this country that is finally getting the attention it deserves. Injuries and deaths among firefighters, EMS and police officers are at an all time high. Emergency response workers “are more likely than other workers to die violently — from gunshots, vehicle accidents and fire-related incidents. Their risk of suffering a fatal incident is three times greater than for all workers.”1
Patients under the influence of narcotics or alcohol, family members of the victim, or bystanders may threaten them with knives, guns, physical assault or verbal abuse. They are constantly exposed to the dangers of communicable diseases such as Hepatitis and AIDS. Occupational injuries such as back strain from lifting patients, and hearing loss due to loud sirens, are routine in their line of work. Government agencies including the United States Public Health Service, the Department of Labor, and the National Transportation and Safety Board are finally addressing these incidents of job-related injuries and deaths, and making recommendations to protect their safety and health.
Although personal protective equipment is protocol for firefighters and pre-hospital caregivers, studies reveal that additional safeguards for the health and safety of these workers need to be standardized. Mandatory classes in the safe operation of emergency vehicles as well as self-defense and strength building programs will further reduce death and injuries. These same studies have encouraged all fire and emergency service directors to take an active role in protecting the health and wellness of their staff.
What effect can a disabling injury or illness have on the mental and emotional well being of someone in the emergency response community? How can someone cope with the trauma of a permanent disability that prevents him or her from performing his or her duties as a firefighter, police officer or EMS professional? What can you do to prepare yourself should a tragedy such as this happen to you?
As providers of care, we thrive on the feelings of accomplishment as a community servant when we are able to make a positive difference in someone’s life. Each of us made a conscious decision to become a firefighter or emergency service provider because we wanted to help others in distress. We do not take our calling lightly, but rather seek to be the best we can be.
When someone suffers a physical injury or life-threatening illness that takes away the very thing that gives meaning to their life, they grieve. This type of loss is similar to having someone we love die. We may experience many of the same feelings and emotions that we do when we are bereaved. We believe that our role in society as caregiver or firefighter defines who we are and our value as a person — in other words, our self-worth. When this defining element is eliminated due to a permanent disability, we may think that we are less of a person, no longer of value to our family or the community we served. If you are one of the many professionals that have suffered a disabling injury, I hope my words will offer comfort and help in coping with your loss.
As you begin to heal physically, you will need to heal emotionally as well. You may feel, at times, that you are riding a roller coaster. Up one day, and down into despair the next. This is normal. You may experience anger because fate has stepped in and robbed you of so much. Surround yourself with family members and friends who will provide a positive outlook for your future. Draw upon your inner strengths. As a result of your disability, your goals and dreams for life must be redefined or altered. This does not mean that you are less of a person. You must accept your limitations and accommodate your life to fit your disability. You can, and will, remain a valuable asset to your family and community.
Do not take life for granted. In the blink of an eye your future can be forever changed. What if something unforeseen happened that would prevent you from fulfilling your planned role in life. What would you do? How would you reinvest in life following a catastrophic injury or illness?
God willing, you will never be faced with a crisis of this magnitude. However, it is important that you take the time now, while you are healthy, to explore your options if a tragedy should happen. Center your choices on your talents. Choose a career that will give you the same feelings of accomplishment that you have now in emergency service. Never forget that there will always be someone who needs you. There are many people in your community who would benefit from your help and expertise. If you make decisions with an open mind and a loving heart, I have no doubt that if you are ever faced with a disabling injury, the choices you have thought about now will enable you to heal physically and emotionally.
In conclusion, I strongly believe that emergency response administrators should make every effort to allow disabled firefighters and EMS personnel to participate in the day-to-day activities of the department should they so desire. Although these men and women may be unable to fulfill their former responsibilities, they still have much to offer. Their knowledge base is invaluable to new members of the departments. They can lend assistance to the staff in many areas including moral support following a stressful emergency call. Do not overlook these opportunities. You will be helping them not only recover emotionally from their injuries but, more importantly, you will be offering them an outlet to regain their feelings of self-worth.
The Grieving Behind the Badge was developed to bring attention to the physical, mental, and emotional struggles of first responders and serves as a benchmark for all other programs addressing grief and traumatic stress.
Copyright Peggy Sweeney. All rights reserved.
1Clarke, C. & Zak, M. (1999). Fatalities to law enforcement officers and firefighters, 1992-97. Washington, D.C.: United State Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics.