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Personal maydays: How do I call a mayday OFF the fireground?

We need to apply our fireground mayday training to our mental health and personal stressors


“Everyone is going through something in their personal lives. Are you paying attention to your members’ needs and getting them support?” asks Pribyl.

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Looking around the apartment, you frantically search for the young girl whom you were told is still inside. Flames and dense smoke fill the air.

Your partner has a light grip on your left boot as you traverse the second floor. Thick black smoke pushes you to the floor, your flashlight unable to illuminate the space in front of you.

It’s getting hotter and there is a dim light up ahead – the fire room. You keep pushing. Your partner stays at the door as you sweep the room. You’re breathing a little heavier. So is he. Adrenaline is beginning to impair your judgment. You clear the room, and as you exit, your partner enters the room across the hall.

Just as you close the door behind you, your partner screams. The ceiling gives way, and the attic comes crashing down. The room flashes as you hug the floor and pray the two of you make it out. There are now rafters, insulation, boxes of Christmas ornaments, and files on top of you. You can hear your partner screaming. He has it a little worse inside the room, more rafters and boxes, some of it on fire.

There is no feasible way for you to get yourself untangled, let alone untangle your partner. Your heads-up display has turned red, and you await the vibration. Shit just got real. You finally free your hand and hit the button – MAYDAY!

You have trained for this. You have prepared for this. You have dreaded this. Yet here it is. In a few short moments, the air horn outside pierces the air informing everyone to get out. Your partner’s PASS alarm activates, yours follows, and there’s no shaking it this time. You can hear saws running, ladders clanging against the side of the house, they slam again, this time making contact with the window, shattering it violently. Water begins pouring in through the ceiling, the aerial has finally established its position and is getting water on the fire. The IC and officers were quick with their response. Everyone knew what was coming and what to do. You asked for it, here it is.

Your eyes open and you’re in a hospital. It’s over. You’re safe. The nurse informs you where you are and that your partner is also awake and recovering in the room next door.

“What about the girl?” you manage to ask. Turns out, she got out before you arrived and was safe at the neighbor’s house. It was all for nothing, but you know damn well that you would do it again.

Feeling helpless

Why is it so easy to call a mayday when we find ourselves in a fireground situation that goes sideways, but when our personal life or mental health is heading in the same direction, we are reluctant to ask for help? Is it pride? Is it embarrassment? Is it years of machoism suggesting that we are supposed to handle any kind of adversity as an adult and come out unscathed on the other side? There are so many questions that it sometimes becomes painful to even try to comprehend.

It often goes something like this: We begin to see the problem, we believe we can confront the problem, we attempt to fix the problem, and then we feel overwhelmed. It becomes consuming. This only exacerbates the problem, and now there’s a helpless feeling driving our decisions. Instead of calling a personal mayday, we turn to self-preservation or self-medication in the form of substance abuse, binge-eating or even violence.

We must understand and accept that it is OK to ask for help. We need to feel safe, not only from fire and emergency situations but also the situations in our personal lives that have the potential to consume us. Furthermore, leadership must be trained to see the signs before they progress too far.

Understanding the problem

With their years of being on the job and working in the people industry, fire service leaders should have the requisite knowledge and intuition to see that the members whom they lead are in need of some kind of help – and then step in to assist them in seeking the appropriate guidance or counseling.

As leaders, are we able to identify our members who are dealing with issues that can impact our team’s performance, their family or themselves? Do we truly know our members and what keeps them moving? It’s critical to first understand the issue so you can better talk to your members – and consider your own struggles.

In its report on firefighter fatalities in the United States in 2020, the NFPA cites Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance (FBHA) statistics indicating that 97 firefighters and 26 EMTs and paramedics died by suicide in 2020. Further, “As with heart disease and cancer, this is a problem that follows firefighters after their career ends or some other form of separation from the fire service. … According to FBHA statistics, almost one-fifth of the firefighters and EMTs who died by suicide were retired firefighters and EMTs. Early recognition and treatment of behavioral health issues are key to addressing this problem.”

Progress is underway, as NFPA 1500: Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety, Health, and Wellness Program requires access to a behavioral health program that provides assessment, counseling, and treatment for such issues as “stress, alcohol and substance abuse, anxiety, depression, traumatic exposure, suicidality, and personal problems.” The goal of such programs is to change the culture of the fire service, help people to identify warning signs, eliminate any stigma associated with mental health issues and asking for help, and provide training and assistance with retirement planning. So, it is time to make NFPA 1500 an ISO requirement? Something for leaders to consider.

Likewise, the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation’s Everyone Goes Home program includes 16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives, including #13: Psychological Support: “Initiative 13 means that firefighters and EMS professionals and their families must have the resources to deal with the various complications that their jobs can bring to their lives, especially issues regarding emotional and psychological stress. They must also have help available to deal with the problems in living that all of us sometimes face, regardless of the work we do, especially regarding family, finances or even drug and alcohol issues. Health and safety standards (like the NFPA 1500 Standard on Firefighter Health and Safety) require that assistance programs be made available to ensure that such services are there when needed.”

Further work is needed to support the ongoing focus on firefighter wellness, creating a culture of openness and trust. Step one might be a reset.

Reset and reevaluate

With resources available to all of us, are we advocating on behalf of our members to have the resources advertised within our department? Are IAFF members aware of the Behavioral Health Program - IAFF available to them?

Do you discuss it with your members? It’s OK to reset a little – pause to train ourselves on the mental aspect of our profession. Even ensure that our personal lives are taken care of to provide the best possible service to our customer.

We need to be honest with ourselves about our own life struggles while being mindful about what our members are experiencing. Consider these scenarios:

  • You work with a member who is the most knowledgeable, dependable member – the one who responds to every call as a volunteer. No matter how accomplished the member, they might be under significant stress. Perhaps his full-time job has just given him more responsibility. His wife has medical issues that he cannot fix. His teenage daughter is approaching some of her most challenging moments in her life. On top of all of that, he also uses his off time to ensure that his members are trained and ready for the next fire.
  • You work with a member who has been with the department his entire adult, even his paid job as a firefighter. He stresses over staffing, selection to captain, tests, how to take care of his family, and the legacy his family has left behind.
  • You work with a member going through a tough time with her family. Her children are growing up and don’t need her as much. What time she has with them is being drained by the constant overtime due to short staffing. But she needs the money because their landlord just raised the rent – a blow after failing the lieutenant’s exam. She was barely making ends meet and then learned that her husband’s job wants to transfer him across the state.

Everyone is going through something in their personal lives. Are you paying attention to your members’ needs and getting them support?

Furthermore, we must also consider the amount of stress we all experience on the job. The days of saying, “It’s just part of the job” are over. After all, let’s face it, the fire academy doesn’t do a great job of teaching us how to deal with the constant overdoses, child CPRs, gunshot wounds, fire fatalities, pins/entrapments, the blood-curdling screams, brothers and sisters being injured or worse.

Step up and take action

We need to do a better job of training ourselves on the multitude of free resources available to us. Who do I call when I have a firefighter/EMT in a bad spot? How do I call mayday off the fireground? Can you point your fellow crewmember in the right direction? If you see a red flag, do you dismiss it and think, “He’s got this!”?

Please do not dismiss signs of stress from your brothers and sisters. We can’t bottle up our emotions and trust that everyone will deal with their own issues. We are different now than before, whether we like it or not. The stigma associated with mental health issues is slowly going away, meaning it’s time to step up and take action for yourself and your members. After all, if you break your leg, you go to the doctor. If you break your brain, you should do the same. Remember, asking for personal help is just as important as calling the mayday when the ceiling comes down – MAYDAY!

Behavioral health resources

James Pribyl is a captain with Turkey Creek Fire Rescue in Sneads Ferry, North Carolina, and has served with the department for 5.5 years. He is also a retired Marine Corps Chief Warrant Officer 3.