The Monster Inside

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From the time we are children, we are told to be afraid of monsters. Monsters under the bed. Monsters in the closet. The monster in that dark and treacherous basement that our parents never wanted us to explore alone. As we grew older, our teenage monsters changed to be the bully in second-period literature or our ever-present self-doubting reflection in the mirror. Adults? Yeah, we have our monsters, too, but the faces have morphed into opposing politicians, rogue foreign leaders, pedophiles, and the new reality of school shooters who kill indiscriminately and without remorse. Monsters are everywhere.

First Responders are not without their own monsters, who, in addition to the monsters of every day society, multiply silently in the dark corners and cellars of our minds. They are ghouls of our own creation and can grow in their ferocity if neglected … or, worse, fed a constant diet of fear and regret. And just like the cartoon I published alongside an amazing article by Chief Jim Crawford (January 2018 FireRescue Magazine), we all have ghosts to deal with. But what happens when those ghosts become ravenous monsters? When they stalk our conscious and unconscious psyche halls and attics, devouring our sanity and ability to function as “normal” human beings? We ask for professional help, or at least we should. But, unfortunately, we consider such help as the enemy at times and treat their presence as another monster, yet far more sinister than our imaginary creatures.

If you follow my work, you know that I am an advocate of mental health awareness, prevention, and intervention. I champion the psychologists and social workers who help the helpless and begin to repair the mental damage that this calling can tear apart. It has been a mission of mine since my lieutenant committed suicide in 2008, and I have been relentless in my support–that is, as long as it was someone else!

So, here, on this social platform for all to see, I have a confession: I am NOT Superman. Not hard to believe? Well, it was a shock to me! In January 2017, I lost one of my best friends, EJ Mascaro, to a tragic off-duty car accident. EJ and I had become increasingly close over the past three years, and he was only one of a few people whom I’ve let in to my inner circle–a very select and rare club. EJ was a sounding board for much of my work and would comment on every cartoon that I published. Every cartoon! We would laugh about them, argue their validity, or simply talk about the topic and try to solve the world’s problems. However, EJ’s death began to grow as a monster within my creative mind, in my day to day life, and in the studio. I began falling behind on assignments or simply not wanting to draw them at all. Why? Because the pain of not getting that call/text/message from EJ was just too much!

This monster began to grow. It began to fester!

The tipping point for me came one Saturday morning this past summer when I had spent another restless night on our living room couch and another night calling out incoherently in my sleep from another nightmare. I didn’t want to face the reality of what those nightmares represented, because I NEVER have nightmares! My dreams are Indiana Jones parodies, at best–giant rolling boulders and flying poison darts where I heroically escape and save the day. Nightmares are rare! So, my epiphany came in the way of my wife calling me out as a hypocrite. To put away my imaginary invincible cape and reach out for help–before my monster’s appetite grew too big.

I will not bore you with the details of those dreams, only to say EJ was part of each and my unconscious mind was trying to work out the solutions because I wasn’t doing it in my waking hours. It wasn’t easy to get professional help, because I saw my therapist as a bigger monster than the one roaming my inner halls–ridiculous, but all too real.

Sarah Gura and I spoke over the phone. She not-so-gently pushed me to go places that I did not want to visit. I talked. She listened. I became angry. I cried. I realized that I knew the answers but would not allow myself to listen. She helped me connect the dots and reduce my monster to no more than an annoying bump in the night. Eventually, I accepted EJ’s death and began to move forward–not forgetting or minimizing our friendship but letting life happen and allowing myself to move in its current.

I came through this ordeal stronger and more ready than ever to create work that may help others. I do not admit weakness easily, but sometimes you must fall hard to learn how to pick yourself up again … stronger …  faster …  better.

It has been a tough year without my brother, but a year has passed with life events that he would not have wanted me to miss because of him. And because I was finally willing to face my perceived Therapist Monster, I was able to quiet the real one to a whimper.

Know your monster, the real monster, and get help before that monster becomes a beast too big to handle. It’s never too late, but the job is much easier when the monster is small.

STAY FIRED UP, and never allow your monsters to dictate your life!

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

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GENERAL POSER

GenPoser

February Fire Engineering​ magazine cartoon: General Poser.

My guess is this cartoon will generate a few Fan Mail submissions. There’s nothing wrong with marketing your skills, but that marketing must have gravity and credibility.

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

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BIG GAME LEADERSHIP

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The Super Bowl – the pinnacle of professional football greatness, myth and lore, where there have been some amazing athletes who can claim to be the glorious victors, or the devastated runner-up. However, one thing is for certain, whether you are the winner or loser of the BIG game – they all got there by being 100% dedicated to their craft and lead by passionate leaders! This year’s match-up puts one legendary leader known for his no-nonsense emotionless approach to perfection against an up-and-coming coach who is not afraid to show his emotions and is approachable to his players, but just as driven to success. These two coaches, and their coaching staffs, are dramatically different in their approach to leadership, but they do have one very predominant comparison – they lead! They make decisions. They act when actions are needed and allow their highly trained athletes to do their jobs. They are IN the game!

All too often in today’s fire service we find people in leadership positions who by fault of their lackluster personalities, their fear of retribution, selfish agendas, or simple apathy and unpreparedness will not lead or make meaningful decisions. They talk a good game, but when game time comes, they fall short of expectations. Sometimes this is not as much the fault of the person, but the organization who promotes inadequate people to operate important positions creating a history of failure and shortsighted goals (I’m a Lions and Browns fan – I get it!).

My question to you is, which coach will you be? Will you lead and make the tough decisions, or hide behind falsehoods and excuses. Will you point the way, or point fingers at everyone but yourself? Will you commit to excellence, or be satisfied with mediocrity?

STAY FIRED UP, and if you’re in the game, be IN the game, and lead!

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

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DRAWN BY FIRE FLASHBACK

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Like all skills, staying calm in the chaos storm is something that demands practice and repetition. If you’re in command, you set the tone and pace, and in many ways the success or failure of the incident based on the presence of calm command. It’s worth the work!
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To see more Drawn By Fire, go to:
http://artstudioseven.com/page-fire-ems-prints2.htm

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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