CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. — Having only been in the fire service for a little over seven years, I cannot speak to what those who have 20+ years accumulate over that amount of time.
But I can imagine.
For me, personally, I know that sleep issues are real.
Long shifts can catch up with you quickly, and you have to find the balance between work, home, and YOU time.
Visual disturbances, are real.
I had one patient, who was a DOA from a bad MVC [Motor Vehicle Crash].
We got on scene and ran up to the overturned vehicle.
His eyes were open, seeming to stare at us, and his arm was outreached toward us, and he was trapped.
We reached in and pronounced him dead.
For a few weeks after that, only at work, when I tried to fall asleep in my bunk, as soon as I’d close my eyes, he’d walk into the bunk room and kneel in front of my bed, and stare directly at me.
I’d keep my eyes closed and will him to walk away.
Eventually he did.
That’s the only one that affected me in that way, and to this day, I have no idea why.
There have been others that were worse calls, but I never had an issue afterward.
It didn’t really bother me at the time, it was more of a, “Really? Why? Geez. Stop.”
Maybe I should have opened my eyes.
As firefighters, we often use an analogy for all the skills and things we learn throughout our career as “things to keep in our slide-tray or our toolbox.” There’s also a slide-tray that few speak of… but it exists.
It’s a slide-tray we don’t often think about, or we try to push away if it pops into our active reel. It’s a tray full of images, and sound clips.
It’s smells, and things we may wish we had done differently.
If I choose to use this slide-tray, I can “push the button,” and advance through faces, screams, smells, and the feeling of holding a limp child in my arms.
I know the sound a mother makes when you look her in the eyes and tell her that her child has died.
I know the strength of her grip as she holds onto you, trying to keep a grasp on reality as her entire world falls apart, and you fight your own tears back, biting into your cheek, because someone has to be strong right now.
I know the sound of desperate screams of, “They’re still inside, please get them, please, oh please.” But we can’t.
As firefighters, we try to never go there, into that box of negative slides.
We pulled the important lessons out and slid those into our functional tray.
But the emotional? Let it collect dust in the corner. If it sits long enough, maybe it will eventually be forgotten.
The dust gets kicked off when people ask us, “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen.”
That slide-tray comes out and flashes in super speed mode through our brain, and we see each face, sight, and cry, then, we give you a generic response, because the honest answer would probably be too much for you to hear.
I share this information, to help others understand the reality our first responders face each day. The man who came into my bunk room, happened within my first two years on the job.
It could have happened day one.
I think the public “knows,” but they don’t know. And you can’t know, unless you’ve experienced it.
Add sheer exhaustion on top of the call stress, and add home obligations, and other things needed to do, and it can become quite stressful.
Having family at home that understands is also vital.
Some days you just need to lay in bed all day and rest. Other days you need to go do something healthy to de-stress, and that is fine, and necessary.
I think it is great that there is a push being made for mental health in the fire service. We need to be able to talk about these things, and have people to go to, even if it’s just an understanding ear to listen.
I think a push should also be made for first responder families. Something to help them understand the life we chose, recognize signs of stress, how to balance it all. My department sponsored a program for any and all who wanted to attend. It should be a regular offering.
The divorce rate for first responders is high. Often, probably completely avoidable with some pro-active measures and resources. They do exist, and if you feel you, and your family need this assistance, reach out.
If something is bothering you, please speak with someone. A shift-mate, your officer, your chief, a peer support team. No one will, or should, turn you away.
I am always available as well. Call me on my cell at 2 a.m. if someone is staring at you and won’t let you sleep. I won’t mind at all.
I have only seven years in and have at least 18 more to go [before I can retire]. I am sure at some point, I may be the one who needs the listening ear, and I hope that the resources are there and thriving. [Thankfully] Our Peer Support teams and Critical Incident staff are always available.
This post was originally published on fireemsleaderpro.org and reprinted here with permission.