When I was a kid I was enamored with the sight of a fire truck. I loved seeing those big red trucks go by, more or less like most kids. But unlike most kids that feeling never went away and at 33 years of age I still get excited when I see those trucks even though riding in them is now part of my job description. During the last 17 years, I have been told a lot of things but the one thing that I wish someone had told me when I joined was what this job demands of you, not physically as that is clearly conveyed during recruit training, but mentally and emotionally. And not just from me but from my family. The sacrifices that they are required to make and what they will experience during this career of public service.
It is no secret that firefighter suicides have been the main discussion, alongside cancer prevention and awareness, across the fire service from the chief level on down. Departments are struggling to identify the “what” and “how” in terms of what to do and how to do it; to not only raise awareness but to provide the proper assistance and help to their members.
To gain a better understanding of this complex issue, Jeff Dill of the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance receives voluntary reporting on firefighter suicides and validates the reports through a process. Mr. Dill has reported marital/family and financial concerns as the leading issue reported for firefighter suicide. Followed by depression, medical, addiction, and PTSD. While it seems that many articles and talks address PTSD in the fire service I believe we need to focus our attention on the other issues that contribute to firefighter suicide. This isn’t to say that PTSD should be underplayed or discounted as various reports state that anywhere between 15-25% of firefighters have or will have PTSD at some point in their career. And when you begin to break down how PTSD and PTSD symptoms manifest themselves over time and sometimes to what we think are unrelated events we begin to understand how this affects our families and home life. Essentially addressing PTSD alone isn’t going to address the issue and most of the time it is a compounding effect of multiple issues that include PTSD along with family, financial, addiction, etc. And most of the time that answer is “it’s complicated”.
Moving further to understand this issue, we look at studies that have shown that the number one cause for divorce within the first seven years of marriage is financial distress. Focusing on the fire service we can ask ourselves how many firefighters have second and third jobs? How many of those firefighters take the pay from those jobs and it goes from disposable income or “vacation fund” to dependent income, meaning you become dependent upon that income to live?
Going deeper down this long rabbit hole and looking at an issue that is facing all departments allows us to gain a better understanding of a much larger issue. Most departments that I know of are understaffed and we aren’t talking about by NFPA standards, we are talking about open vacancies due to high turnover. This creates the need for overtime. And while those overtime checks are nice, especially around this time of year, taking a 24-hour shift and turning it into 48-72-hour shift, going home for 24 and followed up by going back to the fire house for another 24 can begin to create a strain in relationships. Especially if this becomes the norm and not the exception. And if the overtime is because you must, not because you want to then we are adding financial concerns to the equation especially if the overtime well runs dry.
Throw in that part-time job or venture with an overtime shift here and there and that 240 hours we are gone a month quickly turns into over 300 without much effort. Consider that the average Monday-Friday employee would have to work an average of 75 hours a week to match the hours a firefighter puts in when adding part time work to the equation. And while we can debate on what the “average” working person looks like in 2016 I think we can understand the point.
Add in kids and it gets even more complicated. When your significant other is a single parent at least a 1/3 of the time, more with the overtime, we are adding another layer of stress. The school meetings, sports, extra-curricular activities that they become solely responsible for a few times a week to get the kids to and from and we haven’t even talked about the occasional at home “emergency” such as the power going out or the hot water heater goes or if your significant other has a career as well and we keep adding layers of stress. And at the end of the day that is what we are talking about when we are talking about behavioral health, we are talking about stress.
I want to make clear that had I known about these things it wouldn’t had changed my decision, I love my job and there is truly nothing else I want to do in this world. I have enjoyed every day I have gone to work as a firefighter. But having that understanding up front could have better prepared me for what was coming. Having that chance for my family to gain a better understanding is invaluable, whether that is done in the beginning or offered later when one has that family element. Would I have listened and taken it seriously? I don’t know but I do know that the seed would have been planted. And that is what we need to do, plant those seeds.
It is our responsibility to prepare the future of the fire service. Not just physically and tactically, but emotionally and mentally. We must take the time to educate them of what is to come, to begin to build their resiliency, and give them tools to destress and cope. Explain the importance of balance between home and work life. Reach out to the families especially those who are unprepared for a life in the fire service and 24 hour shifts because whether we realize it or not working 24 hours at a time isn’t normal to the rest of the world and not all spouses are accustomed to this.
The point is to educate and to provide education and support for those who have decided to make the fire service a career. We give them the tools and knowledge to succeed in their jobs now let’s give them and their families the tools and knowledge to succeed at home as well as their careers from hire to retire. Provide financial counseling to new firefighters. Educate them on Stress First Aid. Provide a family liaison and allow families to come in and see what it’s about. Bring in spouses of current firefighters to talk to the spouses of new firefighters. And don’t wait until recruit school is finishing up and you are looking for some “filler” classes between testing and graduation. Put it in the beginning and be up front about what it is they are getting into. Providing the resources to help them should they ever need it is as important to their success as learning and understanding flashovers and how to conduct searches. After all, our career has an expiration date the moment we sign the contract, let’s make sure we make it there.
This is part one of a three-part series. Part two will look at the Company Officer’s role in firefighter behavioral health and stress.
About the Author
SIDNEY LUCAS began his fire service career as a volunteer with the Belle and Cedar Grove Volunteer Fire Departments (WV) in 1999 and currently serves as a Lieutenant with the Newport News Fire Department (VA) and is assigned as the Department Safety Officer. He has been with the department for over 11 years where he has served in various capacities. He is a former Chief of Quinton Volunteer Fire and EMS (VA) and a veteran of the United States Navy, serving onboard the USS Wasp (LHD-1) as part of the Crash and Salvage Team supporting the Global War on Terrorism. Sidney is a graduate of the Virginia Fire Officer’s Academy and currently serves on staff. He holds an AAS in Fire Science and a BS in Occupational Safety and Health and is currently pursuing a MA in Management and Organizational Leadership. He is certified at the Instructor II and Fire Officer III level through the Virginia Department of Fire Programs along with being an instructor and a Virginia State Advocate for the National Fallen Firefighter’s Foundation. He also co-owns Colonial Training Solutions, a training and consultation company that specializes in leadership and safety.