THE EGOCENTRIC OBJECTIVE

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NEW Fire Engineering January editorial illustration.

You as an instructor are there for your students, they are not there to pad your ego! I have seen way too many instructors and officers who love to show you how much you don’t know, instead of how much they can teach you. Be the teacher the your students need you to be!

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To see more Drawn By Fire, go to:
http://artstudioseven.com/page-fire-ems-prints2.htm

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GHOSTS

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NEW FirefighterNation.com and FireRescue Magazine editorial illustration for January: Ghosts

Ghosts – if you’ve been a First Responder for any considerable amount of time, you most likely have them. These are the memories of events and people that stay with us throughout our careers and lives – and they collect over time. This cartoon came to me while sitting in Toronto during a layover when a well-meaning yet curious traveler noticed that I was wearing a fire department jacket and naturally began to ask questions. Then, as it almost always does, came THE question! I politely brushed it off with “yeah, you see some interesting things in this line of work,” but my ghosts were awakened and I traveled with them for the remainder of that week – on the plane, at the hotel… you know the story.
 
I am for the most part very fortunate. Fortunate because to this point I have very polite ghosts – they’re always with me, but they don’t haunt me. For this, I am grateful. I keep them at ease by accepting and acknowledging them – a practice that seems to work – even with the more disturbing of the group. This has been a winning strategy for me up this point, but I know the game can change in an instant when my ghosts decide to alter the game-plan. I sleep, eat, and function because I found a way to deal and communicate with my ghosts, and it’s something I think most of us have become masters at doing, but it’s rarely discussed. But in the era of mental health awareness I think it’s important to acknowledge not just how we deal with day to day realities, but the realities of what follows us when the day is done – and some cases, a career.
 
So, I have asked somebody that I respect more than words can convey. A brother, a friend, a mentor, and a man that I aim to emulate in the fire service and in life… a man who has seen his fair share of death and has the ghosts to prove it. Chief Jim Crawford was gracious enough to write this powerful companion article for Fire Rescue, and I am proud to have my work beside his words. So, without any further rambling from me, Chief Crawford, you have the floor.

Ghosts by Chief Jim Crawford

“Which one of us are you going to tell him about?” What a powerful question to ask a firefighter. From the beginning of the fire service firefighters have seen sights that haunt them, and sometimes taunt them, for life. They are images that we as individual firefighters try to forget, ignore or just want to go away, forever. But unfortunately those of us that have been given this ghost image burden will live with these horrible images for the rest of our lives. They are burned into our minds and memories like staring at a bright light then seeing the light pattern when you close your eyes. We will take the images home with us, to our children’s birthday parties, on Saturday date night with our significant other, to job interviews or a get together with friends. We will take them to bed with us at the end of each day tossing and turning as we try to forget, trying to shake the image loose from our minds. Thinking of something else only leads you back to ghosts from another scene, always there, always haunting.

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. 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 that didn’t make it, and LODD 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 nor 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.

Today’s fire service has many avenues to help 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 or our job is just too much to take. On the other hand, we also must encourage our co-workers and friends to seek this avenue of help if they are troubled. Keeping these important phone numbers available for yourself or others to share can be very beneficial when a crisis occurs. Local Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD) teams are a very helpful and logical resource when a terrible 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 that 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 that affect us. If we don’t get a grip on these dominos 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 made a very dramatic increase. The fire service has recently lost some great contributors 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 caring ear may often help those of us through a tough time. We hear the word brotherhood in our business spoken all too often. Those that 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 gets in the way of doing the right thing sometimes. 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.

I believe that Paul Combs really depicted in this drawing 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 we will always be there including the danger to our own mental health. 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
Assistant Fire Chief
Midway Fire Rescue, SC
Assistant Fire Chief (Retired)
Pittsburgh Bureau of Fire

AFFORDABLE PLACEBO

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From Chief Bobby Halton,

Firefighters, Support H.R. 973/S. 1651 or H.R. 711 Now!

Fairness—you hear that word a lot today. “I will make sure they pay their fair share” is something we hear constantly from politicians about taxes. The first income tax code was established by President Abraham Lincoln to fund the war effort and was repealed in 1872. It was reestablished in 1913 under President Woodrow Wilson. The income tax is called progressive because the rate of taxation increases with the rate of earning. The rates have varied, with President Franklin D. Roosevelt raising it eventually to 90 percent. The motives and subsequent outcomes have been argued since it all began, but “fairness” has been the central point on both sides throughout.

In 1935, the Social Security Act established a system of old-age benefits for workers. The Social Security tax was put in place by the Roosevelt Administration to provide a safety net for folks in retirement whose savings or pensions were inadequate. The Social Security tax and payment system is also progressive, meaning it replaces a larger percentage of lower incomes and a smaller percentage of higher incomes. Payments are based on a person’s highest 35 years of earnings in which Social Security income (SSI) taxes were paid to determine basic benefits at retirement age.

Both income tax and SSI taxes are important issues for cops, firefighters, teachers, and others with government pensions, because as public servants you are not treated fairly—quite the opposite: You are penalized for being a true public servant and a hard worker.

The definition of fairness has been debated since time immemorial. Aristotle chimed in when he was speaking about distributive justice. He said, “What is just is what is proportionate.” What he meant is that things should be divided among people in proportion to their worth or merit. So if we go with Aristotle, we should get back in some equally proportionate measure what we contribute, same as everyone else. The more our contributions to the overall effort, the more our compensation or gains should be. This seems fair.

His name was Rick. In the late ’60s, he was drafted and sent to Vietnam. He served with distinction and returned home in one piece. He always wanted to be a firefighter, and his dream came true when he was hired by the Albuquerque (NM) Fire Department. Rick served again with distinction prior to his retirement in the late ’90s. He had earned his pension: 70 percent of his highest three years’ salary—a pension he had contributed approximately 16 percent of his gross earnings to as his contribution every payday. But, as a firefighter, Rick was exempt from paying Social Security taxes. So on retirement from the fire department, where no SSI taxes were deducted, he would not be eligible at age 62 to collect from Social Security—a fund he had not contributed to. Fair enough, no complaints.

But Rick had worked other jobs where he paid SSI before and during his firefighting career. Rick retired in good shape and soon landed a job with a major southwestern airline working the tarmac and baggage side of the operation. Rick would do another 20-plus years and then retire again. His pension, now 20 years old in salary terms, was very modest, and the government that guaranteed it had already changed the deal by taking away some of his cost-of-living adjustment; but, having paid Social Security now for 20-plus years, he would have that to help ease his financial issues in retirement. When Rick finally retired, he discovered that because of two federal programs—the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP) and the Government Pension Offset (GPO)—his SSI benefits could be reduced by two-thirds of his pension, and his wife as a survivor (should he pass) would suffer the same fate.

In 1983, the government, led by President Ronald Reagan, enacted the WEP and the GPO. The intention was to correct the benefits computation of SSI, which mistakenly identified cops and firefighters as low-wage earners. However, the WEP and the GPO do not fairly correct the issue. They unfairly penalize those who worked two jobs while on the job or a second job after retirement with a government pension.

Basically, if you receive a government pension, you are not eligible for full Social Security, unlike everyone else. You may only receive a portion of your benefit unless you contribute a “significant” amount into SSI for 30 years. It was designed to prevent “double dipping,” but some government pensions, like railroad workers, are exempt. It is a complex system like most government systems; and, despite its best intentions, it is neither fair nor just.

Today, there are three pieces of legislation: H.R. 973 and S. 1651 are identical bills that repeal both the WEP and the GPO. Known as the Social Security Fairness Act, it will reverse this unfair law and allow cops, firefighters, and school teachers full access to any Social Security benefits they fairly earned in employment in which they paid into Social Security like everyone else. Unfortunately, the legislation has been stalled in the Committee on Finance since June 2015. There is also H.R. 711, which reduces the WEP penalty on an individual’s Social Security benefits. H.R. 711 affects those already being penalized by the WEP and those who will eventually be penalized by the WEP. Every firefighter organization should have support of these bills paramount on their agenda. Firefighters all agree that how we treat people defines our culture. We all agree that “We leave no one behind,” and we recognize the truth in “What is just is what is proportionate.” Thank you, Aristotle. All we want is our fair share.

 

Chief Bobby Halton ret.

Editor in Chief Fire Engineering Magazine

Education Director FDIC International

Editorial Director  Fire Rescue and Fire Apparatus and Emergency Equipment magazines

YOU’RE WRONG!

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There is a common understanding among the firefighter and EMT community that there are lives that can’t be saved or rescued. It’s a fact of life, and death. Usually those lives are lost due to circumstances beyond our perceived control, and most of us have come to grips with this certainty so we can focus on the next savable life. Understanding doesn’t make it easier, but it helps us live with the fact that as humans there’s only so much we can do to control the inevitable.

However, regardless of our experience, knowledge and training, we struggle to rationalize a loss of a brother or sister to suicide. We simply can’t wrap our mind around a concept where the injuries or rescue avenues are not visible – and we torment over the reality of not saving a life taken too soon. I have experienced this myself, and have seen this internal conflict in my friends all too often.

I have, in some ways, made peace with the knowledge that some friends who committed suicide were determined to do so, and no intervention nor conversation could have stopped it. I wish I could have tried, but deep down I know I would have failed. Unfortunately, the one thing that nags at my conscience more than missing their presence in my life, is that they were convinced that my life would be better without them. That by leaving us behind, our lives would be more rewarding. This eats at me – this angers me!

We all deal with personal demons – some annoying, some antagonizing, some insidious – but they are ours to resolve. So I can’t begin to point a sanctimonious finger and say “get help.” But I will say this, your life matters more than you know, and our lives are NOT better without you in it. Your life matters – you matter!

I could ramble on, but it would be ignorant gibberish about a subject that I am just now beginning to comprehend. So, as you know I like to do, I’ve asked someone with a deeper understanding and education to help disentangle what many of us are struggling to grasp.

You have been introduced to Sarah Gura before when we collaborated on a post about firefighter intervention and self-help (Sharks), but I thought it important to have her voice added to this illustration and topic as well. Sarah and I have been friends for years, and she was instrumental in helping me through the turbulence of losing my friend EJ Mascaro (more on this next month). Sarah is a master’s level, licensed clinical professional counselor in Illinois.  She specializes in treating firefighters and law enforcement. She also provides counseling and education services for first responders. www.selfcarepath.com

So without any further rambling from me, Sarah, you have the floor!

By Sarah A. Gura, M.A., L.C.P.C.

The undeniable facts are in; firefighters are more likely to die by suicide than a LODD.  Firefighters and their families continue to step forward reporting they had a friend die by their own hands.  We are left with the aftermath, and wondering what we could have done differently.

There is an unspoken set of rules in the first responders’ world: 1) Don’t cry about it, 2) Don’t talk about it, and 3) Don’t ask for help –or, something must be wrong with you.  Basically, firefighters fear that if they are human they will be viewed as not fit to do the job.  So many zip up their thoughts, feelings, and needs before they provide their talents and skills to the public.

Externally everyone is looking tough, but it is a disguise.  Internally, firefighters respond to calls with empathy, compassion, and concern the same as anyone should.  When there is no peer support there is no listening, validating, and relating.  Compassion turns to burn out, and the powerful memories and feelings get stacked in the memory bank.  At first, it may be easy to brush off bad calls and the everyday politics in the fire service.  For many, one incident sticks and then it is difficult to “just get over” anything.

Firefighters are left alone with their self-critical thoughts, and they become their worst judge.  The inner critic often feels hopeless, angry, and/or like a burden.  They think they are doing everyone a solid by keeping their mouths shut; and they suffer in silence because of it.  Horribly, they may turn the blame on their self and wonder what is wrong or ask, “Why can’t I move on?”  They may present as moody, irritable, short-tempered, tired, sarcastic, and/or weathered.  One day they may say to themselves quietly, “This isn’t who I thought I’d become.”

First responder careers are supposed to be awesome. That’s why everyone applies and goes through the brutal application and testing processes, right?  It was all worth it at some point, one way or another.  However, whether your pain is personal or professional –the fire service has a history of never-minding its greatest asset: the firefighter.  Old schoolers and their supporters lead the ostracizing behaviors and get others thinking: Am I enough?  The jokesters hide behind the comedy, but I am certain they are just as human as everyone else.  We do not educate firefighters on psychology as it is relevant to their careers, let alone prepare a new first responder family for the truth of this profession’s job description, quite literally: human illness, human suffering, human death, human stupidity, and property destruction
Intimately knowing the dark side of humanity without training is insane.  As a mental health therapist, we train to cope with constant negatively-charged disclosures.  Sadly, most firefighters are operating with coping mechanisms that can lead to addictions, self-sabotage, and/or self-harm.   Coping skills are the positive alternative to coping mechanisms.  With a first responder career, this means providing down-to-earth relatable information.  We cannot keep googling “coping mechanisms” just to find: breathe, count to 10, or imagine unicorns.  The fire service needs real information that helps them transition and adjust to a philosophy of pro-psych-education, peer support, and personal growth.  Firefighters need to know how to use their pain as fuel for discovering the truth of who they are: Healers & Rescuers.

Healers & Rescuers often attract and are surrounded in life-threatening situations (mentally, physically, and spiritually).  If you do not know how to cope with this, the pain becomes self-destructive.  There is another way: learning to cope so that you can become powerful in your potential as a firefighter.  This is what everyone is hoping for and it is possible.  However, it becomes impossible if you are disconnected from yourself.  This disconnect appears to be the “right way” to many firefighters.  What sense does that make though?  If you disconnect from yourself to help others, you will always be one straw away from breaking the camel’s back.  Your life bucket will be overflowing, and when the crap hits the fan you’ll feel too exhausted to clean it up.

If you are already there, please ask for help.  Your silence can become so isolating if you don’t.  Do not become the firefighter who starts to find relief in the thought of suicide.  We are not better without you. To think that is a cognitive distortion, or thinking error.  It is driven by your ego and it gets rationalized in the loneliness.  Your higher mind knows better.  Stop thinking your thoughts for one moment, and try observing your thoughts.  That observer or watcher of your thoughts is you –it is called your Self.  Your Self is the most knowledgeable and nurturing part of who you are.  Your Self loves you so much.  That sounds cheesy until you experience it –then, you would never want to live without it.  Self-compassion is the driving force behind being aware, authentic, and assertive.  In this state of being you can approach happiness and be at peace no matter what is happening to you or around you.  If you want to do life so it doesn’t do you, you need to accept and embrace self-love and appreciation.

I know that firefighters are expected to be 9-1-1, and we forget to be their 9-1-2.  If you are reading this, and you need help, check out “Psychology Today” on the internet.  Click on “Find a Therapist.”  Type in your zip code.  On the next screen on the righthand side, filter your search: insurance/payment accepted, male/female therapist, and specialty area.  A list of therapist profiles near you will pop-up.  You will be able to see their picture, descriptions, and links to their webpages/contact information.

If you are reading this and you want to know what you can do to make it safe for firefighters to ask for help, see my suggestions for your department below.

Make it Safe by encouraging:
(1) every firefighter to self-monitor, and to take personal responsibility for his or her mental wellness.
(2) every firefighter to seek psychological support when confronting potentially overwhelming difficulties.
(3) every firefighter to be a peer supporter by reaching out to other firefighters known to be facing difficult circumstances.
(4) every firefighter to avoid the use of pejorative terms to describe firefighters seeking or engaging psychological support services.
(5) every ranking firefighter to use their status to help provide others with psycho-education opportunities about firefighter behavioral health issues, and to help provide appropriate firefighter behavioral health policies.
(6) fire service leaders and administrators to better educate themselves about the nature of firefighter behavioral health issues, and to take the lead in responding more appropriately, effectively, and competently to those firefighters in need.
(7) fire service leaders and administrators to initiate incident-specific protocols to support firefighters and their families when firefighters are involved in potentially traumatic events.
(8) basic training in psychology topics as it is relevant to the firefighter career, including: potentially traumatic events, vicarious traumas, compassion fatigue, burn out, stress management, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, drug/alcohol abuse, and responding to high risk ideations (i.e. suicide/homicide).
(9) the development of programs that engage pre-emptive, early-warning, and periodic department-wide firefighter support interventions (i.e., proactive annual check in, renewal/updating of firefighter behavioral health policy, firefighter behavioral health wellness events, prevention programing/education, and significant other/spouse support programs).
(10) every fire service entity to engage an appropriately structured, properly trained, and clinically supervised peer support team.
(11) every fire service entity to provide easy and confidential access to counseling and specialized firefighter psychological support services.
(12) every firefighter, at all levels of the organization, to enhance the fire service climate so that others are encouraged to ask for help (and not hide/isolate) when experiencing psychological difficulties.
(13) the fire service to embrace Life Safety Initiative #13 of the 16 Life Safety Initiatives: Firefighters and their family members must have access to counseling and psychological support services by doing more than just offering an EAP Service.

Respectfully Submitted,
Sarah A. Gura, M.A., L.C.P.C.
www.selfcarepath.com

“Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance (FBHA), since its inception in 2011, has been presenting workshops on suicide awareness and prevention across N. America. We believe the fire service is aware of the problem yet so many departments are searching for the next step. FBHA believes creating a successful behavioral health program is the next giant step for the fire service. FBHA will be concentrating our focus in this area for 2018 as we begin consulting with departments on how to create these programs.  There are twelve points departments need to focus on, which include but not limited to are behavioral health, resources, families, retirement, PTSD and so much more.” Jeff Dill

DON’T FORGET ABOUT ME!

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Today I publish an illustration that was harder to draw than I thought it would be – and I knew it would be hard! The subject of alcoholism, alcohol abuse, and drunk driving is at times a taboo subject in the firehouse and our national conferences. We eagerly discuss tactics, obesity, cancer, suicide, depression, seat belts, speed, health and fitness… the list of ways we can become injured or killed seems endless, and we are doing a much better job of having these conversations. But as I write this, another brother is dead, another family is mourning a father/husband/son, and friends are crushed beyond words. I did not know this man outside of a couple on-line interactions, but it brought up so many feelings and emotions from friends lost in the past – losses that I’m still coming to terms with. So, as I do, I put my pain, anger, and frustrations to paper and let my pens speak the words that I want to scream – ENOUGH! ENOUGH!

It’s time that our self-abusive actions be addressed, and I’m hoping that this cartoon starts that conversation. It needs to happen now! This cartoon is the first of three pieces that I will publish in the coming weeks addressing what we do to ourselves, and the effect it has on so many others. I’m not naive enough to believe these cartoons will change attitudes and actions overnight, but I hope it will be a start. A start to the tough conversations that need to happen. A start to our brothers and sisters stepping up to address the self-abuse – within themselves and others. A start to educated people making it their life’s mission to offer training and assistance. A start… a spark of hope.

“No More!” is a hollow statement, when “Why Not Now?” would be the more appropriate question. I wish I would have had the courage to put aside my pain and reservations months ago to draw this cartoon and say what needs to be said. Maybe I could have saved a life… I have to live with that regret. But never again. I’m sure this subject will elicit scorn and ridicule from a few – so be it. Small price to pay if my work starts a movement to changes minds, habits, and actions.

I’m sick and tired of waking up to devastating news – crying in a huddled mass on the kitchen floor – comforting friends – planning/attending funerals – drawing tribute cartoons – celebrating a life taken by alcohol by getting drunk – then doing nothing until it’s repeated.

ENOUGH! …and maybe that starts right here.

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To see more Drawn By Fire, go to:
http://artstudioseven.com/page-fire-ems-prints2.htm