Saturday, May 13, 2017

Where Do We Go? What To Do? - The Tragedy Call

This can be a very rewarding job. And, it can be a terrifying job, as well. There's nothing like showing children the apparatus, watching their excitement when we turn the lights on or sound the siren (hope it's a Q!). When they're excited like this, we can slip in some safety information like, "stop, drop and roll, E.D.I.T.H., etc. And when they leave, they leave with fun in their eyes and having learned some safety in their brains. However, most of us know that this is a terrifying job as well. Not in a personal sense that we fear what we do; rather, we fear what we might see and/or have to do. And this has nothing to do with being a rookie or probie, nor does it deal with our chores.  

This "fear" is rooted in what we may have to see on the job. No doubt, the two worse sights would be any death that involves a child and anyone that is found subsequent to extinguishing a fire and finding the victim complete burnt. While there is no doubt that this job would force us to come to terms with someone's passing, there is a big difference between these calls. That's why I refer to these terrible instances as, "tragedy calls." Strangely, in my short eight-year volunteer career, when my injury took me of the "line," I had dealt with both instances and sadly, a couple of times with each one.

On a normal call, when were' finished we pack up the hose, ladders, ropes, etc. and had back to the barn. Upon arrival back to our station, there's a lot of back-and-forth cajoling and boisterous story-telling. However, when returning from a "tragedy call," we return and go about our chores without the joking and boisterous chatter. And for those of us who have answered several of "tragedy calls," we may say differently, but in reality, it never hurts any less.

This one aspect of our chosen vocation or avocation can carve a very deep chasm in our personal psyche; sometimes to the point where it affects who we are as a person and of course, as an effective fire-rescue member. Yet, far too many of us who have gone through this change, have buried it deep and far away. We don't want to talk about it with anyone. Not our spouse or partner, not our chief, captains or colleagues.It sits there, eating away at us like a cancer.

In researching the material for my book, "Fish Out of Water: Two Jewish Guys in a Deep South Firehouse," I found that the term post traumatic stress disorder was first used by the American Psychiatric Association in 1980. For the next five years or so, it was used to describe how many of our brave men and women who had been returning from service in the Far East, were suffering. Family members and friends were saying things like, "He's not the same as he sued to be," or "She wakes up screaming at night from nightmare she's having about a bombing in a small village."   

As I've stated above, we too have seen many terrible things. However,in 1979 one incident eventually led to how the reality of what we see can chage us. On May 25, 1979, American Airlines Flight 191, a DC-10, took off from O'Hare Airport on its flight to Los Angeles.Within minutes, it had come apart and crashed in a fireball, killing all 258 passengers, 13 crew members and 2 civilians on the ground. As one firefighter put it:
"We didn't see one body intact, just trunks, hands, arms, heads, and parts of legs. And we can't tell whether they were male or female, or whether they were adult or child, because they were all charred. Another first responder on the scene stated, "It was too hot to touch anybody and I really couldn't tell if they were men or women. Bodies were scattered all over the field." (From

From my book:

Then on May 25, 1979, the Friday before Memorial Day, that all changed due to a single, tragic incident. American Airlines Flight 191 crashed into a trailer park just off the perimeter of Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, killing all 270 passengers and crew on board and at least two individuals on the ground. The airport’s ARFF58 responded as did several local departments, such as Des Plaines. At first, they were told it was a cargo plane that had crashed, but as soon as the first responding units arrived on scene, it was clear that this has been a passenger plane.

The scene has been described as a “valley of death,” with human remains, much of it charred by the massive fireball from the fully-fueled jet. However, like most of us, with the adrenaline coursing through their systems, they quickly got down to business, initially to subdue the remaining fires and then to take stock of who and what remained.

In an article I read online, within 24 hours, several people who had been on the scene early on, began to suffer emotional disturbances. A now-retired Des Plaines firefighter who had been a lieutenant at the time, said he was alright until the next morning, when he climbed into his truck to drive to work and just sat there and cried. By Sunday and Memorial Day Monday, dozens of workers reported many symptoms.

Whether it was due to the reality of the size of the accident (it still holds the record as the most lethal U.S. aircraft accident) or the large numbers of people claiming problems, counselors were finally brought in to help anyone who felt that they were experiencing some sort of post-traumatic ramifications. Thus the reality that first responders of all types i.e. firefighters, police officers, EMT’s, paramedics, etc. have feelings too, was born. (Fish Out of Water: Two Jewish Guys in a Deep South Firehouse," 2016, Steven S. Greene)

So, we return to today. And today, beyond the tragedy calls, there are many, many more pressures on us. There are marital/relationship strains, financial, medical and social strains, all culminating in psychological changes to many of us. Sadly, many of us try to bury the pain and anguish in a deep, dark place in our minds. But it doesn't always stay there. It comes out to taunt and torture us. And sadly, it has taken its toll in both a significant rise of PTSD diagnosis and, even worse, fire-rescue suicides.

Listen, if we can do the job we do, we can find a way to deal with this personal pain and beat it before it beats us. Talk to a comrade, officer or even the chief. Seek out your religious leader. Ask to see the fire surgeon. And remember, whatever you tell the your religious leader or the fire surgeon is confidential. They cannot divulge this information without your express, written consent. 

As we watched the videos of 9|11, we watched our colleagues march into a building thet they knew for sure, that there was no way to squelch that fire and perhaps, the real possibility of not returning. But forward they went. And yes, there were some who just couldn't go. They asked a chief and received permission to stay on the ground level.

We can and should learn from their courage and bravery. There are many tasks that we cannot do alone; we must have a partner. The same is true when you feel that what's inside you pychologically speaking, is too much, Find someone you trust.

There is no reason to go it alone. Just as we're partners on the nozzle, on the truck company, on the heavy rescue, we are partners in this as well. Talk. Do not be a statistic. Every single comrade in the fire service, whether in your department ir anywhere else in this country, loves you too much to see you do anything rash.Talk Talk TAlk TALk TALK!

Stay safe and let's make sure everyone goes home.
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