A Firefighter's Mental Size-Up

I’m sure this topic will cause a lot a debate and will have people in an uproar, but I want to discuss the elephant in the room; Mental Health.  On the fireground we know we need a strong size-up for an effective initial fireground operation. However, we don’t take this same approach to our firefighters and their operational readiness. We can focus on training and having the best equipment possible, but, if we are not mentally healthy we will lose some of our effectiveness. 

Firefighter suicides are just now really coming to the forefront and it’s hard to believe that we, as a fire service, are so set in our ways and traditions that we are still rather dismissive about the mental health subject.  “We’ve done it this way for hundreds of years" or "that’s not how the old guys did it" or even "maybe you are not tough enough”, are all stuff we have heard around the stations.  We have such a macho persona we don’t want to allow anyone to see our vulnerability.  If we are just now focusing on firefighter mental health and the alarming number of firefighter suicides each year, then how many unfortunate incidents happened before we paid attention?  How many incidents have we “covered up” so as not to tarnish the reputation or for benefits? 

If we are not mentally healthy then how do we ensure we are making the best decisions and not taking unnecessary risks? I’m not talking about your average distractions.  I’m talking about the distractions that we focus so much energy on and typically hide from others.  You know, PTSD, depression, suicidal thoughts, anger issues, nightmares, drinking, and drug use kind of distractions. 

The first priority for any firefighter is Life Safety.  When will we make it our priority for us both on and OFF the fireground?  If we are not mentally healthy then we take the unnecessary risks, push too hard, push too far, and convince ourselves we are broken and can’t be fixed.  We must realize that the skeletons in our closet do affect our effectiveness. 

It is time for the American fire service to be more proactive than reactive.  There is a reason that firefighting gear and health is more advanced in Europe and Canada; they have embraced the change. I’m not saying that the American fire service is bad or that we need to forget our traditions, but I do believe we need to be more realistic and open minded about safety and tactics.  If I am not mentally healthy enough to truly take care of myself, than how would I be able to effectively take care of others? 

We need to understand that strength can be found in our weakness and stop belittling those that have the courage and strength to say I am struggling or truly care enough about the brotherhood that we look at our peers, recognize there may be an issue, and guide them in finding the right assistance.  It may be as simple as knowing that a peer can speak with you without judgment or just knowing they are not alone.  It could be the assistance of a peer support group or counseling but regardless we need to actively do a mental health size-up on all of our people. So I have developed a mental size-up called D.A.D.S.

D (Debrief) Discuss concerns, either personal or run related, in an open, honest, no repercussions atmosphere.

A (Ascertain) See if someone is struggling, holding back, etc. through these debriefing conversations.

D (Direct) Guide them in the direction of seeking help, if needed. Mental health assistance.

S (Safety) Support each other; we all have demons, in a non judgmental atmosphere.

If we do this everyday for our people and become better D.A.D.S for one another, the fire service as a whole will improve greatly.

3 Comments
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Mental Health

November 6, 2017 07:44 PM by Patrick Joseph Kenny, CFO-EFO

Jim great topic my only caution is using terms that seem contradictory to your message of strength to come forward can throw people (ex "We need to understand that strength can be found in our weakness.") Mental health challenges not a weakness and I know not what you meant at all but reads that way.

A Firefighter's Mental Size-Up

November 10, 2017 07:19 AM by Shan Werner Raffel, AFSM EngTech CFIFireE

Jim, thanks for having the courage to bring this issue up as a topic that needs to be discussed more openly. In the early stages of my career, I tended to view people with a mental health issue as being defective. Over the years I have learned that even the best of us can find ourselves in a "bad space" if bombarded by enough personal or work issues in a short space of time. The majority of people who find themselves in this position simply need some time (and support) to recover. Recognition of someone who may be struggling is critical. If this is followed by empathy, understanding, and support, the results can be very positive. The alternative approach is judgment and punishment. Definitely not the best initial approach. 

Mental Health

November 16, 2017 11:42 AM by Jim Mayfield

Mental health issues is never a "weakness" however, I believe we allow ourselves to think it is.  Thank you for the comments and support.

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