Is the fire service getting soft?
What’s happened to the macho, charge-in American firemen of bygone days? The traditional, work-hard, play-harder heroes everyone adored? Hanging off the tailboard and racing to fires? They are a dying breed—literally and figuratively.
In 1986, after Brookline, MA, Firefighter Joe Tynan fell out of a responding fire truck, a court awarded $5 million to his family and the design of fire trucks changed almost overnight. Enclosed cabs began to appear, doors were added to jump seats and tailboard riding was prohibited—albeit not without protests.
In 2001, as part of FEMA’s Assistance to Firefighter Grants (AFG), the Fire Prevention & Safety grants provided funds for scientific research on fire-related topics. Among those topics were medical research and statistical analysis on firefighters’ health. As a result, data showed over fifty percent of line of duty deaths are heart or stress-related. Research looked at firefighter suicides and mental health, now referred to as behavioral health, and its prevalence was brought to our attention. New studies now reveal just how deep the connections between cancers and firefighting.
So anyone who fought fires decades ago couldn’t be blamed for noticing how much the fire service has changed. More open, more focus on prevention and keeping firefighters healthy and alive.
The fire service isn’t getting soft, it’s getting smart. You need to be physically fit to safely fight fires. It is acknowledging the need to remove the emotional residue from incidents that haunt. Not unlike dirty turnout gear, it’s carrying the residue of tough, heartbreaking incidents and invisibly cling to your body and soul.
At Firehouse World in San Diego, Chief Pat Kenny, Western Springs, Ill., gave a powerful talk to a packed audience of emergency responders. I don’t think Kenny’s message would have been heard 15-20 years ago. Sharing his personal experience with his son Sean’s suicide and his wife Eileen’s cancer, the Chief spoke of his realization that he had worn a ‘super-power cape’ as a fire chief, yet he couldn’t save his own family.
“What happens when you ask a firefighter if he’s ‘okay’?” asked Kenny. We all know the answer. Instead Kenny suggests asking “How can I help?” and then follow-through.
Kenny said, “Post-traumatic stress disorder is just one of the various mental health challenges, not unlike the many varieties of cancer.” Fire departments recruit men and women that care and have a heart, but when faced with emotional problems, officers often don’t know what to do.
Chief Kenny ended his talk by directing each attendee to stand up, turn to the person on your right, shake hands and join Sean and Eileen’s team to raise awareness of behavioral health and cancer.
Through tears, I saw many “man-tears” (sniff-look down-touch the nose). Is the fire service softening? Call it what you want, but from my perch, I see a fire service that is smart enough to recognize they need to take care of themselves so they can take care of others. And fireground injuries don’t stop with being released from the emergency room.
As you decontaminate your gear and get back to the station, why not do a quick check of what you saw and feel. It’s not being soft, it’s being human. We need you to take care of your whole self—body and mind. So does your family and friends—and your community. Thank you.