A Checkup From the Neck Up

Editor's Note: In this latest installment of his series on the 16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives, Billy Hayes looks at #13: 'Provide firefighters & their families' access to counseling & psychological support.'


By Billy Hayes

Jimmy Buffett said it best in his song Changes In Latitudes, "If we weren't all crazy we would go insane!" Jimmy's songs have a way of helping me cope with the everyday stresses of work, marriage, parenting, and all of the other ups and downs in the rollercoaster ride of life.

So, you have to be asking yourself, "OK Billy, other than you letting us know that you're a Parrothead, what's your point?" Well, it refers to Initiative 13: Provide firefighters & their families' access to counseling & psychological support. I do believe that every one of the Life Safety Initiatives have an impact on the mission of reducing firefighter line-of-duty deaths. But for the last couple of years, Initiative 13 has stuck out in my mind more than some of the others.

When Initiative 13 is discussed in most cases, we talk about what happens when we lose a firefighter in the line of duty. In every aspect, we have two families to take care of; the family at home, and the family who worked with our fallen brother and/or sister. But in many cases, we forget about the family we work with at the firehouse.

We become so caught up in the technical needs and what happened in an incident and preventing it from happening again that we tend to overlook the human emotional needs of coping with the loss. Furthermore, we exert so much energy in the support of the family at home and providing for them, we either forget about ourselves, or use taking care of the family at home as a way to avoid dealing with our own feelings.

The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation has developed a wonderful class entitled, Taking Care of Our Own. Generally, it is taught by either family survivors or firehouse survivors, or in some cases, both. This year at Fire-Rescue International in Dallas, Cathy Hedrick and Charlie Dickinson will present this three-hour session which will help you prepare your department before an LODD occurs, what to do in case should one occur, and how to support everyone involved in the aftermath.

Cathy, who lost her son Kenny, and Charlie, who was Chief of Pittsburgh when his department experienced a multiple LODD, have a wealth of knowledge on this subject and are well respected nationally for their work in this field.

We know that cardiovascular events account for more than 50 percent of line-of-duty deaths. This percentage is consistent year after year. Through medical research, there are findings that stress is a contributing factor to cardiovascular events, whether it is strokes or heart attacks. We also know that stress is a leading contributing factor to abuse of alcohol and narcotics.

The Lessons I Learned

We in the fire service have our own way of dealing with the stress of our job. Whether it’s laughing it off, not talking about it or isolating ourselves. Or, like most of the time, just because we don’t have time.

We finish a bad call, complete the paperwork, and we take off again when the tones drop for the next emergency run. We lock it away so we don’t lose focus of our job.

Even as a fire chief, I dealt with my own issues. Arguing budget needs to the city manager or the mayor and council, trying to figure out how to make do with what you have, disputing with other fire departments over mutual aid (another article for another time), and searching for the few quality candidates to hire for the job were just some of my everyday stressors.

While I hoped the members of the department understood that I really cared about them and was doing the best I could for them, I always knew there would be those that you just can't please and don't like you because you’re the chief. All of this combined simply exhausted me. When I got home in the evenings, I was drained. My family would want to talk with me and I would shut them out for at least an hour until I could decompress myself from work.

While my wife and kids had a tough day in their own regards, they wanted to see me, and all I could do was vegetate on the sofa. That was my ineffective way of dealing with it. Obviously, much of that is the price we pay for the job we have. We do have inherent downsides of our profession and position. In so many ways, we try to leave our work at work.

Frankly, who wants to tell their family about the worst disasters that humans can experience around the dinner table?

We seem to focus so much time and energy on health and wellness in the fire service, but isn’t it predominantly from the neck down?

As a former fire chief, and like many others, I sought funding to purchase weights, treadmills, perform physicals and drug testing. But it never dawned on me until I was close to the end of my run as chief that mental health is really more important. I did my share of Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) meetings in the department when we had major incidents and even when we lost one of our own from a non-duty related crash. But they weren’t very effective and I never really forced it on the crews.

While many of us try to leave our 'work at work,' is it just as easy to leave home at home? How do financial, family, and/or any other personal issue affect our decision-making at the firehouse. How do we feel about the driver of the apparatus when we are going MACH 3 with lights and sirens who came to work knowing that he is going bankrupt, his wife is leaving him for another firefighter, she's taking the boat and the dog. 

Is this somebody we want driving the truck? Or what if it’s the company officer who is going inside with you on the hose line? The question I ask is what avenues of mental health and wellness are we offering our members?

You can say that you have an employee assistance program, but many employees find that as a form of discipline, especially when it's used in that manner on occasion.

You can say that you have CISM, but is it really effective? If there are departments who have effective mental health and wellness programs, please step up and tell us about them. You owe it to the fire service to share your findings because this truly is uncharted waters for many of us.

So how do we give ourselves a Checkup from the Neck Up? Here are just a few ideas:

1) Invite a mental health professional to conduct training, specifically on recognition of stress and how to deal with it? Even include the families on occasion.

2) Have events at the firehouse for the families. They will find support in each other and maybe can have a better understanding of the stress you go through at work.

3) Encourage members to look for signs of stress, and create an environment where it is acceptable to have mental health and wellness programs (don't criticize or poke fun of them for asking for help).

4) Avoid using the employee assistance program as a form of discipline. This negative use will discourage individuals to seek it when it is really needed.

Most of us have methods of dealing with our stress. I try to no longer vegetate on the couch, and in fact, a change of employment and position has helped me do that. Getting away from some of my old stressors have made me a better person, and helped me see where I was just as dysfunctional as some of the characters on FX's Rescue Me. I've actually had many people tell me that they don't like the show because it airs our dirty laundry which is exactly my point, and many like me have said, 'Finally, a show that tells our story.'

So what's the message of me and Jimmy Buffett? Like many Parrotheads can equate to, his music carries me away to Margaritiaville, a magical place that is in your state of mind. It reminds me that life is too short not to hit the reset button as often as you want. It's my way of a Checkup from the Neck Up!

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