5 stresses firefighters deal with that others don't know about
There is always the chance that something will happen that we have no control over; it's those fears that keep us up at night
By Michael Morse
We love this job and thank the good fortune that was bestowed upon us that we are firefighters.
And what‘s not to love? We eat like kings, occasionally get paid to sleep and watch TV, have a home away from home and form friendships like no other. It‘s as good a life as anybody could expect.
We proudly display our union stickers on our cars, and most of us have a few fire department T-shirts in our wardrobe. The public respects us, and we have earned it. We know this, and believe in ourselves for the most part, but nothing in our lives is absolutely perfect.
There is always the chance that something will happen that we have no control over. And it's those fears that keep us up at night.
Every firefighter holds a few secrets that they typically keep to themselves.
1. The weight of responsibility that we bear is crushing.
Maintaining the illusion of an aloof but invincible know-it-all, can-do firefighter is work. Believe it or not, we do it not for ourselves, but for those who depend on us.
Firefighters are always on duty. There is no down time. The mind is never at rest. People depend on us to know what to do when they don‘t. There are a million things that could go wrong at any second, and firefighters are expected to perform. We keep this knowledge buried for the most part, but it is always there.
[Note: Firefighters looking to manage the risk of this responsibility should read What every fire officer must understand about their responsibility by Gordon Graham and Billy Goldfeder.]
2. We are not born with the knowledge necessary to be good firefighters.
We have the aptitude for the job, but that's not enough. It needs to be nurtured and constantly challenged. There is a word for what needs to be done to ensure competence: training.
And training never ends. It is as constant as breathing. When a skill is learned, it needs to re-learned at every available moment. There is always something new to perfect, and perfection is elusive. The training is the foundation that everything else depends upon. Having the skills to perform embedded in you through repetition helps when the real deal comes your way.
[More on this: Why firefighter training depends on repetition]
3. Fear of failure is the greatest unspoken fear that every firefighter carries with them.
We border on arrogance, saunter through town like we own the place, respond to emergencies with a can-do” confidence and bask in the glow of public confidence. But in the middle of the night, when there is nobody but you and the thoughts that run through your mind, things are not so clear.
A million scenarios play out before you, and you question whether or not you have what it takes to respond. The what-if game knows no end.
- What if the train that usually rolls through town unnoticed derails, and a toxic cloud of chlorine gas and anhydrous ammonia escapes?
- What if the baby that normally sleeps through the night is found not breathing at three in the morning?
- What if a truck carrying scrap metal takes the Thurber‘s Avenue curve too quickly and rolls onto a car full of college kids, trapping them, cutting them to shreds, and all you can do is watch them bleed to death while the crane that will free them slowly creeps up Rt. 95?
- What if the kid who decided to hang himself changed his mind at the last second, and you arrived a second too late?
- What if the fire is too hot, and a family of five burns to death 3 feet from where you stand, charged hoseline in hand, unable to get even 1 inch closer, and the echo of their screams is all that is left of them when you finally force the door?
Failure is not an option. There is no “nice try” in firefighting. There is success and there is failure.
Success is what makes firefighting great. Failure is soul-crushing, confidence stealing, character-destroying misery — it's the greatest unspoken fear that every firefighter carries with them.
[Read next: A firefighter's guide to stress and well-being]
4. We live with the knowledge that the risk of developing cancer is extremely high.
Nobody wants to die. The myth that we will die so that others may live is just that, a myth. What we will do is take ridiculous chances at rescuing people — if, and only if, there is a chance we will come out alive. None of the firefighters who die in fires, collapses, accidents or explosions do so willingly. It is an insult to the integrity of life to think otherwise.
But die we do. Most often it isn‘t during a daring rescue, where images of a heroic firefighter are flashed across the screens of an adoring public. Most often we die alone, in bed, in agony, pain numbed by morphine, with a few people by our side, the ones that stayed with us during the struggle, when the lights are gone, and the cameras no longer roll.
We die from cancer. The things that burn emit toxins that we breathe in long after the fire is out.
- The diesel fumes in the station that no system can capture.
- The million and one chemicals that are created when a car catches fire.
- The asbestos we breathe.
- The dust that settles in our lungs and on our skin.
[Be proactive with your health: Teaching firefighters to detect occupational cancer]
5. The things we see in this profession are worse than you could imagine.
Going to work knowing that there is a very good chance something will happen that will eat away at your soul becomes business as usual. Mentally preparing yourself to face death, disfigurement, madness and disease becomes the norm, while working or not.
It eats away at your humanity, your compassion, and your ability to love freely and without guile. The feeling of impending doom will always be with you, consciously or subconsciously, it matters not; what does matter is how you handle it.
The toughest among us are actually not that tough at all, they are simply the healthiest. Those who joke about the dead and make small talk of the mentally unstable are those of us who suffer the most and disguise their hurt with bravado. The rest of us just cope, and get through each day the best we can.
Firefighting is more than a way to make a living. It‘s a way of life. But nothing in life is free.
And it‘s killing us, slowly but surely.
This article, originally published August 9, 2015, has been updated.