What About Mental and Emotional Rehab? Part 1

Pull up a chair and listen to one of my firehouse stories. There is both irony and destiny in what took place on the evening of May 31, 2000. I had announced my retirement from the City of Mason (Ohio) Fire Department back in March. For 20 years I had been a volunteer, then part-time employee, of the fire department in my hometown.

For the last five years, I held the rank of Station 52 captain. We alternated running duty officer (Battalion 51) during the evenings and weekends. With my retirement effective June 1, I wanted to run duty officer one last shift. I was to meet my fire chief, Billy Goldfeder, for dinner that evening to help celebrate my departure.

He was running on “Goldfeder Time,” which meant he was going to be late. As I waited in the restaurant lobby, tones began going off for a structure fire in an animal bedding production facility in the rural part of our county (the process starts with big logs that have to be dried and pulverized into gerbil/hamster bedding-size shavings).

Monitoring the assigned Tac channel, the reports seemed to indicate there was little fire and crews were handling it well. Mutual aid companies had arrived to assist, and within 30 minutes, the fire was declared under control with overhaul work beginning. 

But then radio opened up with incident command reporting an explosion with firefighters burned. I did what any experienced, dedicated fire officer would do: I jumped the call.  Chief Goldfeder caught me on a side channel for directions and off we went.

Injured firefighters
Our department was requested for aerials and manpower. Our response was Quint 52, Tower 51, Chief 51, Battalion 51 and Medic 51. The location had about a 15-minute response.

A total of 11 departments were involved as evening temperatures were in the 80s. Air rescue units were also dispatched to the scene; apparently a flashover had occurred as crews opened up a vent hole in some of the machinery.

It was reported that 10 firefighters had been injured. We did not know the severity. The incident commander had also requested the regional critical incident stress management (CISM) team to the scene.

Once we arrived at the command post, I was given treatment officer duties. 
Fortunately, the injuries were minor. All were transported to area hospitals, with two flown with more severe burns.

Fire conditions improved as crews doused the embers and applied foam. The plant was saved, but naturally, everyone was concerned about their brothers who were injured.

I looked up to see a group of five or six adults walking toward the command post. One of them identified himself as being with the CISM team. He calmly told us that they had other CISM personnel en route to all hospitals where the injured had been transported.

They scanned the fireground and began to lightly mingle with those firefighters in rehab.  I truly felt that during this time of high emotion and confusion, people were going to be taken care of. I mentioned to a couple of the folks that I had heard about the CISM team and had an interest in joining as I would be having some free time on my hands.

Emotional effects
This evening of fate closed one chapter in my firefighting career and opened a new one. Perhaps you already have an opinion of the use of CISM, or CISD, as it was once referred to as.

Although chief officers care about their personnel as their own children, sometimes in the complexity of a bad call this area can be overlooked. 

As we continue to see the importance of providing first responders with physical rehab, we must also address the emotional effects of their duties. In my seven years on the team, I have seen and heard a lot of positive and beneficial assistance provided.  Quite simply, I view CISM folks as help for the helpers. 

Most of this isn’t rocket science. You’ve been on “the worst call of your career,” and you need some help to get through it. Being able to talk to a fellow firefighter, in a confidential format, works. 

Maybe you have your own way of working through the issues. This is fine, but maybe that 25-year veteran’s words during an intervention can help the younger members of the department. 

The  goal of our local CISM team is to provide an organized system of crisis intervention to reduce the number of job-related stress casualties among professional ranks. This may begin as a defusing held very soon after the operational portion of the call is completed or a debriefing within 48 hours. 

I learn something each time I am sent on a call-out. I highly praise and respect the firefighters, police officers, dispatchers, chaplains and mental health professionals that are involved. 

As I write this piece, I see that it will be impossible to fully explain and give justice to the components of a stress management. Please allow me to end, and provide more details in next month’s column.

In the meantime, you may go to www.icisf.com for information on this topic.


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