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.
Sarah A. Gura, M.A., L.C.P.C.
“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
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.
To see more Drawn By Fire, go to:
It may be an unsolvable mystery.
NEW November Fire Rescue magazine editorial: Take Us To Your Leadership.
To see more Drawn By Fire, go to:
My very first encounter with Chief Alan Brunacini was not what I would have hoped for. I was attending my first FDIC and was sitting through a presentation on how to submit articles to become a Fire Engineering author. Being the introvert that I am, I naturally sat in the back row while taking notes. Chief Lasky had already set the fire under my tuchas two days earlier to make a difference, so I wanted all the info I could gather. About 15 minutes into the panel discussion and older gentleman wearing a brightly colored shirt shuffles in and sits next to me (leaving a polite empty chair between us). Not long after taking a seat, he fishes through his pocket to produce a small nail clipper – which he begins to use. I take all of about 20 seconds of this before I lean over and say “sir, do you mind?” – I’m sure my face was saying “dude, for Christ’s sake, STOP!” As fate would have it, I called enough attention to the incident that Bill Manning (the head of Fire Engineering at the time), noticed the gentleman and said to all – “What a pleasure. Chief Brunacini – come on up and join us.”
I knew the esteemed name of Chief Brunacini and the importance of his lessons, now I had met the man – I sunk as far as 6’1″ could in an awkward plastic chair!
After the presentation I was slinking out of the room trying to be as inconspicuous as possible when I felt a gentle slap on my back – I turned – and Chief Brunacini was standing there chuckling. Not a word was said… just those fatherly eyes… that snarky smile… and the quiet understanding that I was a novice in the land of legends.
Nearly 14 years would pass before I would have an opportunity to teach at a conference with Chief Brunacini, and be honored to sit with him during a Q&A panel. Me… with Chief Brunacini … with Capt. Gagliano… talking fire (sound smart, sound smart, sound smart…)!
I have a few more stories, but I share this one because of what it represents about the man and his mission – about his legacy. Take time to learn, to practice, to share, and to give. Take the moments that life gives you and learn from them, grow from them, and then move on to the next moment. He died doing what he loved to do, and knowing that makes me smile.
This cartoon isn’t much, but it’s a small gesture to a larger than life man. Simply said, thank you for everything you gave us, Chief – we will pass it forward.
2014 North Carolina Firefighter’s Conference
Finished my rock’n Frankie this morning during some personal drawing time. What band do you think he’s listening to?