Under The Helmet: Addressing the Hidden Problem

July 13, 2017

by Firefighter Matthew Going, Firefighting seems like a glorious profession to have and a honorable way to volunteer. There is a ton of camaraderie in the fire service. It gives us a sense of belonging, of worth. You get to wear the badge proudly, wear the uniform, don the gear, ride on the rig, etc. There is so much to get out of the fire service, but there is more that we give to it. What do you mean, give to the fire service? Your time? That’s right, but not the only meaning. There is a lack of volunteers in this country today largely due to the time commitment it takes to get certified and actually be able to go inside a fire, which is what most people joining up dream of doing. I know I did! The countless hours of training, combined with the calls you make and classes you have to attend, are hard on a family man or woman. Most younger people shy away from the time commitment because they want to do other things with their time, which is understandable. So who’s left? A small few who decide that they will make the commitment to train and get certified. They will give up time in their lives to pursue the opportunity to be a firefighter and serve the community. It is a noble thing, and it is a hard thing. Many family functions may be interrupted or missed, but firefighters make this choice. So we give time to our passion, what of it? Time is not the only element of our lives that we give to the fire service. We give our emotional availability. We give our heart, our empathy, and our compassion to the service. This may not seem like a big deal at first, but it can begin to weigh on you. This is the time for a little self-disclosure. I have two passions in my life, both of which are in the helping professions. One is firefighting, which you probably have picked up on by now. I joined up at a small department, Due West Fire-Rescue, during my undergraduate studies. I was looking for meaning and belonging after leaving my collegiate sport due to injury. I had never been devoid of sports in my life, and it left huge time gaps that I had no idea how to fill. When I received an email pertaining to the need for firefighters at the local fire station, I felt like I was being called to it. I went to a recruitment dinner and decided to join. While I was still taking a full load of classes, I started going to fire classes at night to become certified. I eventually became an inaugural live in at the fire department, staying there during the week. I realized soon after joining that I had a passion for helping others in this capacity, and decided to give it my all. Looking back, I’m not sure anything could have prepared me for the intensity I would face after joining. Talking about previous calls and training on them were great, but they fail to prepare you for that intensity factor. My first call with the fire department was a cardiac arrest. I drove POV to the call, arriving shortly after the rig but before the ambulance. I wasn’t sure what to do or where to go, but my heart was already racing. As I entered the door, I saw a motionless patient lying on the floor, with my new brothers performing CPR. I was looking at someone who had just died. I didn’t realize that at the time, as I was tunnel-visioned on focusing on the task at hand. I was instructed to talk with the family and provide support for them as they worked on the patient. As I entered the next room, a woman in a frantic state grabbed me and screamed “Why is this happening to me? He is all I have left in life! What do I do!?” I was stunned. It was if time froze and stood still for a couple of moments. I realized I was probably in this situation for a short amount of time, but it felt like an eternity. Words eventually came to me, but I have no recollection of what they were. What can you say in that sort of situation? Is there anything an individual could say to help while their loved one is passing away in the next room? The medics eventually took him by ambulance to the hospital. As the family departed the scene, we gathered our supplies and headed back to the station. My assistant chief came over and told me I did a good job handling the situation. I didn’t understand how, but I took the compliment. I knew at that time what this profession was going to entail. I may get to help people and possibly save some lives, but there would be terrible situations that I would be put in. To this day, that is still proven to be true. I have experienced many terrible situations and more death than I care to count. I feel as if I see more horrible situations than I see good ones. And I know for everything I have seen, a brother or sister in the fire service has seen the same if not worse. There are some calls that are routine, and some that stick with us for a lifetime. Some calls we cannot even remember all the details to pass on to the next shift, and others we could relive the experience in excruciating detail. How do these calls affect us? Different calls affect us in different ways. The death of an elderly person may be difficult if we recently lost a parent or grandparent. A motor vehicle accident may bring up bad memories of a car wreck that we had. The list could go on and on. These calls may cause me to feel one way, and the person right next to me a totally different way. Why is this important? Because we have to be there for one another. This is where the emotional availability aspect I alluded to earlier comes in. Firefighters deal with very stressful and tragic situations. They drain our emotional reserve. How can you pump a truck and put out fire with no water? How can you give your all to your job and home life if you have no emotions left to give? They are hand in hand, these two examples. Most of the time, we tend to focus on the physical aspects more than emotional. We are taught to keep are emotions in check. But they can affect us, even though we are taught to be strong. The emotional drain that this profession takes on a person, especially when emotions are pushed down and unresolved, can ruin any aspect of our lives, including our job and our family. We are taught to be strong, to be tough. We can’t be tough if we show emotion, so we bottle it inside and try to bury it until it doesn’t bother us. I try to think of the pros and cons of every situation. Pros to this would be: we don’t have to show our weakness, we remain strong in the eyes of our peers, and we don’t have the hurt that is usually associated with the emotions we are avoiding. I feel the cons are bigger than the pros in this situation. This could cause you to slide into a silent depression, develop PTSD symptoms, diminish your coping abilities, and just make you an unhappy person. This can cause your passion of a job to become a living hell. If you don’t resolve the issues you face at work, then you won’t want to be at work. If you don’t address your emotions at home, it can cause you to be isolated, irritable, and unhappy. This will eventually rub off on your family and cause distress. When thinking in this context, is bottling our emotions worth it? Okay, we have discussed a ton about emotion, the positive and negatives of keeping it in. What is the point? I want to get this point across. Feel. Allow yourself to feel and deal with these issues. As I am going to into the counseling field and being in the fire service, I have seen unresolved situations. Situations that we are put in that some civilians could not dream of going through, we go through on a daily basis. They affect us, whether you allow yourself to feel it or not. Trust your brothers and sisters in the fire service. We are supposed to be there for each other, thick and thin. We are taught to trust your partner, even in the direst situations. Why should that have a cut off? Why can we trust them in a fire or other situations where we might lose our lives, but can’t trust them with our emotions? Unsolved emotions, I feel, can be just as deadly in a way. It isn’t quick, but it can wear you down. Allow yourself to feel. Allow yourself to grieve. Trust the people you surround yourself with. Take care of every aspect of your life. We have to keep in physical shape to protect ourselves on call and do our job. Do this with your mental and emotional shape as well. Think of it as a balanced triangle: Physical, Mental, and Emotional. To do our jobs to the best of our abilities, we must strive to take care of all three aspects, not just one or two. Let all the things you have kept buried inside go. See vulnerability as a strength, not a weakness. Anyone can bottle things up and keep them hidden, but it takes a strong person to confront those emotions. My hope is that we can change the stigma of the “tough guy” mentality in the fire service and help firefighters deal with problems of any kinds. Let’s take care of our own, and the first step is awareness of the problem.
Matthew Going a firefighter with Salem Fire and Rescue in Oconee County, SC. He is also a graduate student at Clemson in the counseling field. 

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