As we see other disasters and tragedy on news channels, we can only think of the new ghosts that our brothers or sisters on scene will have to endure after the brave
and valiant attempts at rescue of those we are sworn
to protect. And when we have done our utmost best,
stretched our oath to the very end, we will have either
won or lost—there is no in between. And it’s the losing
that destroys each of us from within: the pain, the guilt,
the overwhelming sense of failure. It can be too much to
bear at times.
My many ghosts have dwelled within me through a
very long career. From infants burned into mattresses,
to multiple child fatalities, those dragged from burning
buildings who didn’t make it, and line-of-duty firefighter
fatalities. From the many motor vehicle accidents where
the occupants weren’t extricated in time to the victims
hit by trains. From working the body recovery team of
a major commercial aircraft crash to the victims who
jumped before you could throw the ground ladder. I
grew up in a fire service when you didn’t ask for help
or show any signs of grief. I have lived with my ghosts
without help and have learned how to deal with them in
my own way. My family has suffered the most through
my self-help psychiatry, but that is the way I was taught
to deal with the ghosts. I know better now.
MENTAL HEALTH ASSISTANCE
Today’s fire service has many avenues to help members
cope with mental health, from organized firefighter assistance teams (FAST) to employer-based employee assistance programs (EAP). We all must seek these avenues of
help if life and our job are just too much to take. On the
other hand, we also must encourage our coworkers and
friends to seek this avenue of help if they are troubled.
Keeping these important phone numbers available for
yourself or to share with others can be very beneficial
when a crisis occurs. Local critical incident stress debriefing (CISD) teams are a very helpful and logical resource
when a tragedy occurs within your department or area.
Sometimes these teams are capable of handling one-on-one counseling as well. You need to check into your local
CISD or FAST teams to see what their capabilities are
and to collect their emergency contact numbers.
Many firefighters try to deal with these memories and
images alone. As we often hear, the ones who usually
suffer the most are those who are closest to us. Spouses,
significant others, our children, family, and close friends
all feel our images through our behavior—only they can’t
see them like we do. Mood swings, anger, and becoming
withdrawn are only a few of the ways they affect us. If we
don’t get a grip on these dominoes that begin to fall, our
lives will turn upside down. Many will turn to alcohol
and illegal drugs, poor life decisions that will lead to
divorce, breakups, termination, or jail.
We often wonder why we subject ourselves to this and
if the love of the job is what gets us through. Sadly, the
suicide rate within the fire service has increased dramati-
cally. The fire service has recently lost some great con-
tributors over the past few years. It’s very clear that the
sights, sounds, and smells of our job are affecting many
more of us than we know. We must all encourage each
other to talk out our ghosts and, if that does not work,
to seek professional help. We must learn to identify the
signs of depression, as looking out for each other is the
most important thing we can do. Simply lending a car-
ing ear may often help those of us through a tough time.
We hear the word brotherhood in our business spoken
all too often. Those who give freely of themselves to lend
a helping hand to those in need without complaint are
the true heroes in our business.
Being human is sometimes very difficult. Being
human as a firefighter in front of other firefighters is
even more difficult. Our “tough guy” mentality can
sometimes get in the way of doing the right thing. We
must support and push firefighter mental health to the
forefront. Too many firefighters are dying at their own
hands. The help and support must start with us first. The
more you talk about what is bothering you, the easier it
is to rationalize what is going on.
MAKE THE CALL
I believe that Paul Combs really depicted in his illustration (opening page) what many of us feel. Reliving calls
is something we all do. It can be a healthy release from
the stress by using it as a training tool to realize whether
our actions were correct or if we need improvement.
Learning how to deal with the images we continue to
see is the challenge. If you need help figuring out your
ghosts, please seek assistance now. You are only a phone
call away from help.
As firefighters, we will continue to answer the call for
help. Regardless of the danger, including the danger to
our own mental health, we will always be there. One of
my favorite Bible verses, as it would pertain to the fire
service, is Isaiah 6:8, which says, “Then I heard the voice
of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go
for us?’ Then I said, ‘Here I am! Send me.’”
Firefighters are sent out to the call day in and day out.
If your ghosts are troubling you, seek out the help you
need to continue to answer the call.
James K. Crawford has more than 40 years in the career and volunteer
fire service. He is the assistant chief for Midway (SC) Fire Rescue. He
retired as the assistant chief of the Pittsburgh (PA) Bureau of Fire in
2010 after 20 years of service and as the deputy chief of operations
from the 171st Air Refueling Wing Fire Department, Pennsylvania Air
National Guard. He served 23 years in the military service and is a
graduate of the Air Force Fire Academy. He is the past deputy chief
of training and a former rescue manager for the Pennsylvania USAR
Strike Team. He is a life member and past chief of the Ben Avon (PA)
Volunteer Fire Company. In 2003, he assisted the Department of
Homeland Security and the USFA in developing the “Rapid Intervention
Teams and How to Avoid Needing Them” report. He has been a H.O. T.
lead instructor at FDIC International for the past 17 years.