Thursday, August 30th, 2012 9:08 am
By Joe Minocchi
of the Leatherhead Instructors, LLC
Not many of us have ever had the misfortune of experiencing a line of duty death. Even for the departments or persons who have, the experience is never an easy one. Most times, families, friends, or co-workers are in a state of shock or awe until after the funeral or burial. At times, people attending the services can be heard saying “Everyone looks as if they are holding up just fine.” For firefighters, our sense of pride coupled with the brave image we are expected to uphold carries us through life’s most difficult experiences. The toll it takes on us may never be seen or heard.
In the United States, approximately 100 firefighters lose their lives in the line of duty on an annual basis. As of this writing, the total LODD currently is fifty four. NIOSH will release their findings and reports of these deaths indicating the series of factors that lead to the LODD. As in years past, close to, or over, 50% of these deaths will be contributed to a physical ailment relating to some type of cardiac incident. Whether a sudden cardiac arrest or a cardiac arrest where pre-existing ailments were to blame, the outcome is still the same.
Anyone can get on the internet to their favorite firefighting web page or pick up their favorite firefighting publication and read about health and wellness. With everything from beginning exercises to making meals for the shift, information is there to help you to become physically fit for today’s firefighting challenges. A heart that beats 60-70 beats per minute (bpm) and surges to 150-200+ bpm is strained and tested. Add prolonged exposure to temperatures ranging from 350 to 800 degrees, along with understaffed companies, the percentage of heart related LODD may never improve. Most of us work out, either in or out of turn out gear, and eat healthy – all in an attempt to reach our optimum healthy lifestyle.
One area where many firefighters fail in reaching that healthy lifestyle is with their own mental health. Human nature along with societal expectations does not have a great understanding or tolerance for mental health disorders or problems. Stress reduction is a huge factor in healthy living. It also plays a significant role in cardiac related issues. Stress, when unattended or monitored, leads to increased blood pressure, a lack of patience, and impairs one’s ability to calmly assess a situation and respond. This entire process snowballs and rolls out of control. Not always obvious to our family, friends, and co-workers, the symptoms continue. The effects of stress and the pressures of life itself rise which could cause a cardiac event, or even worse, leaving the individual feeling as if there is no way out.
Suicide is a growing concern amongst fire service professionals. The issue is that cases are occurring more often without answers as to why and what went wrong. Here, brothers and sisters, is an area where we can make a huge difference with very little effort. Many people today deal with home, family, business or financial stress on a daily basis. The average firefighter faces the dangers of the job, along with the pressures and stresses, and then returns home to all of life’s other heavily weighing concerns.
We need to educate ourselves on what to watch for. Today’s firefighter needs to listen to our co-workers for changes in tone, attitude, or desire for job pride. Let them know that help is available and, more importantly, that it is ok to ask for that help. Many of the calls that we respond to won’t affect all personnel in the same manner. Sometimes, a short conversation will reduce the tension or anxiety that a brother or sister may be feeling. The “Brotherhood” must step up in its responsibilities and take looking out for one another to a new level. The brotherhood I speak of is not only within your department. It reaches out to companies you are assigned to or departments you contract with for mutual aid. Will these firefighters come to you in their time of need? Will they ask for your help?
Let’s get back to the statement made earlier: “They look as if they are holding up well.” Days, weeks, and months pass us by quickly. How do we know if our people or companies or even neighbors are holding up well? What do you currently do to make sure the healing process is occurring in a healthy manner? Take time from your busy schedule and visit the firefighters. Make sure all is as well as can be expected given the circumstances. Don’t just assume that they are ok. Some members may not be comfortable with a critical stress debriefing. Maybe the all-important kitchen table at shift change is their place of refuge and comfort.
On August 10th, 2012 Sugarcreek Captain Michael “Mouse” Burgan died while participating in a SCUBA dive training course. Captain Burgan was a twenty year member of the fire service. More importantly, Mouse was a friend of mine. We worked scenes together and we definitely laughed together. One July afternoon my department was dispatched to a two vehicle accident with entrapment. Sugarcreek Fire was dispatched with a rescue to assist. The scene was traumatic with all four occupants of the vehicles deceased. I was sitting on the roadside guardrail after tearing apart a mangled vehicle looking for a baby girl thought to be with her mother. As it turned out the baby was found safe at a relative’s home. Mouse sat down beside me, patted me on the back and said “That sucked, but I’m here for you”. Simple, true, and to the point! I will never forget his words. So to my friend, I now say “This too sucks, but I will be there for the friends and family members of your department. So rest in peace brother, you have served well”.