Emotional problems in the firehouse: The company officer's role

The most important thing a leader can do is offer a listening ear to those they encounter going through a tough time


We started our fire service careers at the same time. We were both promoted to captain at the same time, working at the same station. We rotated off the engine and the truck and trained hard, as well as played hard, together. We became close friends on and off duty.

Always dependable and someone I could count on, Bill was as solid as they come. He was well-liked and certainly someone you would want with you during fires or complex incidents. But I began to notice a change come over him at some point. He seemed a little moody at first: Not his normal style. He was showing up late for work on occasion too. He seemed to withdraw, I thought.

But I was working at a big fire house, with 15 personnel on duty each shift. Truth is, as busy as I was, it was easy to lose touch with Bill. Also, I knew that as firefighters it can be easy to jump to conclusions before having all the facts. We tend to like to fix problems and make them go away. The first thing, I told myself, was not to overreact. Most people go through life’s struggles and work through them with a little time. “It’s Bill,” I told myself, “he’s got this!”

"Experts say nearly one in five U.S. adults live with a mental illness. Mental illnesses include many different conditions that vary in degree of severity, ranging from mild to severe. So it’s not uncommon to sometimes need some help—and that includes us first responders," writes Sam DiGiovanna. (Photo/Getty Images)

But how much time should I give him before acting on my concerns?

Eventually, Bill’s behavior began to negatively impact the entire shift. This is a telltale sign of a problem: Negativity is contagious. Other personnel, I noticed, were becoming withdrawn and irritable too. Like a cold, it’s easy to catch the negativity being thrown your way—especially when you’re rundown or otherwise vulnerable. At this point, I had to step in to stop the contagion.

I asked him if there would be a time when we could speak privately.

“Why? What’s up?” he asked.

“I just want to catch up,” I said. “It’s been a long time since we’ve chatted one on one.”

I could tell he didn’t like it.

When we finally sat down together, I tried to put him at ease with my demeanor and some small talk. “We haven’t spoken in a long time,” I told him, “so I just want to see if there’s something I did that maybe offended you or if there’s something else that’s up.”

Bill immediately snapped at me: “There is nothing wrong with me. Mind your own business!”

That stung a bit. Not so much for what was said, but why and how it was said. It wasn’t normal behavior, especially for Bill.

I had to know my limits. I didn’t want to report Bill to the administration. There are, of course, times when you do have to intervene. When a person is acting erratic or uncontrollable, or demonstrating they could hurt themselves or others, you need to act immediately and report the issue. This wasn’t one of those times.

Unfortunately, my ego was getting in the way: I was frustrated by my inability to fix him or the morale issue he was contributing to. This is common among first responders. I had to remind myself: I am not a therapist or professional in this matter in any regard. I’m a fire captain, colleague and a friend.

The next shift, Bill seemed to lighten up a bit. This was my window to approach him. My job was not to ask Bill if he was going through depression, a life change or mental health problems, but to let him know I was there for him and ready to listen. The word “listen” seemed to resonate with Bill. When I told him I was there for him, he opened up a little: He was going through a difficult time at home but didn’t want to discuss it further.

I reminded Bill of the City Employee Assistance Program (EAP). I mentioned that we had a list of qualified professionals that could help, and that it would all be anonymous. Anonymity is extremely important to most first responders. We would not want others to think we can’t handle our affairs!

Experts say nearly one in five U.S. adults live with a mental illness. Mental illnesses include many different conditions that vary in degree of severity, ranging from mild to severe. So it’s not uncommon to sometimes need some help—and that includes us first responders.

That’s what Bill did. He eventually went to see a qualified therapist and was his old self pretty soon thereafter.

Takeaways

Listen: One of the most helpful things you can do for someone struggling with a mental health issue is to listen. Listening is a lost skill. It is important to do even if someone is not struggling.

Don’t judge: No one was struggling more than Bill. The last thing he needed was to be judged by someone who was supposed to be his friend. If you judge, you can’t listen with a pure intention.

Don’t take it personally: Easier said than done, but it’s essential to remove your ego from the situation. If you personalize it, you cannot be fair. You are likely to make it more about you than finding a solution.

Have a needs agreement: Not as easy as it sounds, but if you can establish a “needs agreement” ahead of time works wonders. How? When there is no tension and communication is flowing well, let the other person know what you need from them and ask what they need from you during incidents like this. You can always remind them, “Hey, we have an agreement.” When/if things go south this is easy to draw to. Most people will respect that if it goes both ways.

When to seek outside help: If you see a behavior that can place the person or others at harm, seek outside qualified help as soon as possible. If the situation isn’t critical, however, it’s best to play the role of listener, encouraging your friend or colleague to get help and providing resources to help them do so.

Don’t jump to conclusions: It is easy to assess others with our own perceptions. We may “think” we’re qualified or know what’s going on; however, I’ve found many times my assumptions were totally off base. Leave it to the pros! Would you want a psychologist with no firefighter training backing you up on a fire? I don’t think a psychologist wants fire service personnel meddling in their profession.

Make it a safe zone: Ensure their sharing is confidential, that you are safe and they are safe, as well as your personnel. No one is better than setting up perimeters and safety zones than first responders. If they continue to come to you for advice, establish a boundary. Let them know you appreciate them trusting in you, but you can’t solve their problems for them.

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