How to handle a firefighter LODD
A department that experiences an LODD can't change the past, but it can affect the future to ease pain and prevent more deaths
My good friend, Chief Billy Goldfeder, has taken on the unenviable task of announcing firefighter line-of-duty deaths to the fire service through the FirefighterCloseCalls. Billy has done this countless times, each time with a sense of honor and dignity, and always with the reminder for all of us to be safe.
In my fire service career, I've been directly involved in more than 12 line-of-duty deaths. These were as a member of the department suffering the loss, as one assisting another department with the funeral arrangements and as a part of the subsequent investigations into the fire and the resulting death.
Each LODD was different, yet each left a lasting mark on the firefighter's family, their department's personnel and the community they served.
Bringing up some of these thoughts are very personal to me. But there is also a greater need for every chief, every fire officer and every firefighter to understand and address effects of an LODD, as well as be proactive in trying to avoid some of the pitfalls.
Surviving family members can suffer in many different ways. The department needs to quickly establish a trusted liaison from within its ranks to act as a go-between to help determine the needs and wishes of the family.
Being the liaison is a long-term commitment for a highly mature individual — not just for the funeral, but for many years to come. The liaison needs to remain close enough to determine critical needs when they occur years from the LODD. This could be assisting the family at holidays or pertinent anniversaries, such as on the subsequent dates of their firefighter's LODD.
The liaison must know how to help the family with discretion and know when to seek other professionals to assist.
However, the most long-term problems I've experienced, occur when a firefighter dies without a current, legal will that clearly outlines their wishes for the support of their loved ones.
Our lives change — marriage, divorce, co-habitation and children all have consequences that may delay or exclude benefits for some in deference to others. This can delay the federal death benefit from quickly getting to those who need it most.
A serious issue also arises when factions within the family disagree. The liaison should not act as an arbiter, but certainly can suggest that such disagreements might be best handled with the help of a neutral third party.
Families grieve and heal in different ways and on different timetables. Some families may embrace our fire service traditions and feel it is a way for their friends to share in both the grieving process and the joy of a life to be celebrated. They may wish to continue to attend fire department functions.
Others may shun the traditional firefighter funeral in favor of a more private burial and may remove themselves from the fire service culture.
Both types of decisions should be respected, and the liaison needs stay in touch to determine if their wishes might change. One such family, who opted for a more private ceremony, later honored their fallen firefighter with a fire service scholarship in his name to annually send a candidate to paramedic training.
Healing the department
How a department reacts to an LODD is critical to its future well-being. The most successful departments look at the follow-on investigations as an opportunity to learn, improve and share any hard-earned lessons with the fire service as a whole.
Their open cooperation in the investigative phase also reassures its members that any safety issues that are discovered will be thoroughly vetted, addressed and resolved. It is important for all to understand that some good can come from tragedy.
Those departments that fail to acknowledge or correct safety issues will soon find their members disgruntled or moving on to other more progressive departments that embrace the safety and welfare of their personnel. Departments that bury their head in the sand may soon need a change in leadership that signals a move to a more safety-minded culture.
Critical Incident Stress Debriefing is not a one-time event. Like a family liaison, CISD is a process that requires a continual follow-up with all personnel. Following any LODD, individuals, especially younger members, may find themselves or their family facing the issue of their own mortality for the first time.
Others, especially those who witnessed or responded to the incident, belonged to the same fire company, or were very close to the fallen firefighter, will question why they survived the incident while their co-worker did not.
In the beginning, these feelings may not be evident. For example, the extremely compressed time frame between the LODD and the funeral keeps every department member focused and occupied with the task at hand.
The follow-on investigations will also occupy a good deal of the department's time. It is after the completion of these essential tasks when fatigue, doubt and second-guessing begin to fester.
Here is where the department's professionalism, especially at the company officer level, must prevail. Personnel need to know they can freely talk to someone — an officer, co-worker, or clinician with anonymity, discretion and without repercussion.
They must be assured that the help they seek or are sent to receive will not be seen as a weakness. Rather it must be seen as an opportunity to express their thoughts, feelings and emotions that have occurred as the result of this untimely death.
Following an LODD is the time for everyone to be their brother's keeper and look for the telltale signs of depression, anxiety or apprehension — especially concerning their ability to continue facing the risks and challenges of firefighting.
Once the funeral is over, the real test for the community begins. That test is two-fold: will it support any changes for the department needed to keep its firefighters safer, and will it make the effort to remember the sacrifices of not just the fallen, but of all those who have given of themselves in service to their communities?
Will they, for example, acknowledge that firefighters both past and present face a higher likelihood of cancer due to their exposure to carcinogens throughout their career?
Will they realize that those who quietly suffer from this disease and silently fall as a result of their lifelong community service deserve the same gratitude as those revered due to a more publicized heroic death?
Brick and mortar memorials have their place to help us remember those who died so that others might live. But the true test for every citizen and community is displayed in its unwavering support of their firefighters to remain safe through continuous education, training, and improved protective equipment.
As Chief Goldfeder would say, "Be safe."