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After the mayday: Just because the fire is out doesn’t mean the incident is over

Simple ways to support firefighter behavioral health following a potentially traumatic event


“We have to address potentially traumatic events, like maydays, head on. We can’t ignore the incident that everyone on duty is likely thinking about and having sidebar conversations about,” writes Zemlok.

Photo/Arcadia, California, Fire Department

Firefighters are some of the toughest, bravest and most resilient individuals. But where tough, brave, resilient individuals almost never expect to find themselves is in a potentially traumatizing mayday event.

Due to the inherent risk and infrequent occurrence of maydays, firefighters can easily feel overwhelmed in the moment. It can take more effort than anticipated to get the mayday message through the radio traffic, to successfully command the incident at hand, and to stay focused on the task assigned and continue with that directive. But beyond what happens on scene, it can be overwhelming to deal with the emotional impacts in the aftermath of a mayday.

The risks of ignoring mayday trauma

It can be easy to ignore or forget to address the emotional aftermath of mayday events. But research is clear on the fact that experiencing threatened death or serious injuries can lead to serious emotional impacts. This is certainly true for the person directly involved, but it’s also a risk for individuals who witnessed such an event or were present for the situation – the firefighter’s crew, the rapid intervention crew (RIC), the incident commander or even someone just listening to radio traffic. It can also be traumatic to just hear details of a loved one being involved in a life-threatening situation. Consider the family members hearing about it later or someone off duty who arrives and hears about the situation that occurred. Bottom line: A mayday event carries the potential for lasting emotional impacts for any person involved in the incident or closely connected to it.

The firefighter who called mayday (or anyone else mentioned above) is at risk for the development of post-traumatic stress (PTS) symptoms, sleep issues, social isolation, irritability, panic attacks, anxiety, depression and/or suicidal thoughts. So, the worst thing you can do is ignore this possibility. Just because the fire is out doesn’t mean the incident is over.

When we try to move on too quickly, we make it hard for people to get help or to come forward to say, “I’m actually not OK with what just happened.” And when people don’t get the help they need or acknowledge that they were impacted, things can get worse. Left unchecked, the individual could find themselves facing a lower quality of life, underperformance, failure of relationships, low morale, an increase in sick leave or other challenges.

Departments should acknowledge maydays as serious critical incidents. With firefighter behavioral health issues being one of our greatest threats to firefighter safety today, we can no longer remain neutral to the events that we know can have lasting impacts. As Lexipol co-founder Gordon Graham likes to point out, “If it’s predictable, it’s preventable.” We need people to advocate for immediate support services following such serious events. We need to allow that firefighter, and anyone else impacted, the time and space they need to process the event and manage it in a healthy way, so it doesn’t lead to more serious challenges down the road. We need to ensure that the firefighter has the skills they need to communicate about critical incidents to their loved ones as well as helpful resources to share with their families so they can manage any potential challenges that might arise. This is how we support our firefighters, promote wellness and ultimately save lives.

How to help a mayday firefighter

When your firefighters better understand the impacts of the job and have immediate access to healthy coping skills to manage challenging events, we will see greater performance, less sick leave and workers compensation, more retention, and an overall healthier workforce.

For some, this might sound like a distant goal. But there’s always something you can do today, no matter who you are. You can have a huge positive impact on any firefighter involved in a mayday. Here’s how:

  1. Don’t write this off as “just part of the job” or dismiss the gravity of this situation. Firefighters will carry on as though it’s no big deal, if you let them. A standard conversation: “You OK?” ”Yeah.” They might be highly focused on finishing their shift and acting like it’s all business as usual. But this type of incident can be triggering for many, if not most.
  2. Communicate your support. Let the firefighter involved know that you recognize how intense it must have been. Ask them what they need. Is there is a way you can support them right now? Check in with everyone on your crew, maybe one on one, and gauge how they are doing. The alternative is moving on like business as usual. Some people will think, “It’s best we don’t emphasize this if people seem fine, right?” Wrong! When things go ignored, shoved down, denied, that’s when they have a greater potential to fester and evolve into bigger issues. If someone is coping fine, they will continue to do so even when you shine a light on what may have gone on for them. We don’t want people to say they are fine because they think that’s what is expected of them, then actually be seriously struggling internally. Let them know they have your support and that you want them to take care of themselves.
  3. Keep an eye on them. This includes the direct firefighter involved but also other crewmembers as well, at least for the next month or so. Take note of how they are doing. Big shifts or changes in their personality, behaviors or mood are red flags that could signal that the firefighter is struggling.
  4. Talk to them if you notice anything “off,” even after they told you they are OK. Ask them how they are doing when you’re one on one. Are they getting sleep? It’s critical they do! Unpleasant symptoms, unhealthy coping strategies, and negative thoughts are all magnified with a lack of sleep. Let them know what you notice and that you want to make sure they are taking care of themselves. You can also refer them to a member of your peer support team so someone else can check in with them, if that’s something your department has available.

Healthy coping skills

We’re all human and our brain’s job is to keep us alive. Any situation that is life-threatening is expected to shake us, no matter how brave we are. So whatever uncomfortable thoughts or emotions members have in the aftermath of a mayday, please find a way to allow space for them to make sense of things again.

One way to show support is to encourage them to engage in these healthy coping skills that will give them the best chance at managing this situation:

  • Regular exercise
  • Adequate sleep and rest
  • Healthy meals that will provide adequate fuel and balance
  • Communication with family, friends, and professionals when needed
  • Openness to support
  • Asking for what they need
  • Allowing strong emotions and uncomfortable feelings to run their course
  • Avoiding unhealthy coping with drugs and alcohol

Help them understand that the days following this incident may be difficult – and that it’s different for everyone. Remind them that help is always an option, and encourage them to reach out sooner rather than later if they feel something is off or not sitting right. If they are trying to ignore the negative feelings, remind them that this approach may actually make things worse in the long run.

A world of difference

We have to address potentially traumatic events, like maydays, head on. We can’t ignore the incident that everyone on duty is likely thinking about and having sidebar conversations about. You do not have to be an expert to help. You just need to communicate to the members involved that there’s a risk here, help them understand that you’re here to help, and that there are resources available. When this is done in a genuine way that demonstrates support, it can make a world of difference for some, and at the very least, set a strong example for a culture of wellness that your firefighters deserve.

Dr. Rachelle Zemlok is a licensed clinical psychologist in California, specializing in work with first responder families. She serves as the strategic wellness director at Lexipol, supporting the content and strategy related to first responder mental health and wellness, with a special focus on supporting spouses and family members through the Cordico Wellness App. Prior to joining Lexipol, Zemlok founded First Responder Family Psychology, which provides culturally competent therapy to first responders and their family members. She is the author of “The Firefighter Family Academy: A Guide to Educate & Prepare Spouses for the Career Ahead.” For more information on Dr. Zemlok or to connect with her please visit her website.