When you ask children what they want to be when they grow up, you will hear fantastic, limitless dreams. They want to be professional athletes, the President of the United States, a doctor, a teacher, a police officer, an astronaut, a zoo keeper, a veterinarian, and maybe even a firefighter. Regardless of what they dream of being, they are focused on the positives of that job and the endless possibilities lying before them. Do you ever wish you had the outlook of a child? Where did the attitude regarding endless possibilities die with adults?
Of course, some children will never reach the goals they have set for themselves. Some will suffer setbacks which they cannot overcome. Some will have limitations set on them by society or by their parents. Some will not live long enough to see their dreams come to fruition. These are sad thoughts, and you may be wondering why I've included such a sad idea in the beginning of this article. The reality of life is tragedy is all around us. This is not a Chicken Little "the sky is falling" or an Eeyore "woe is me" article or concept. Where we are born and into what situation we arrive sets the parameters for our lives. Being born in the United States instead of in a third world country affords us benefits that others don't have. It also means our opportunities are much less limited.
In the fire service, we have a family. Depending on the size of your department, that can be a rather large family. I work for Palm Beach County Fire Rescue (PBCFR), and we have 1,500 employees. We also have in excess of 75+ employees retiring on a yearly basis and the same number of new hires to replace their departure, which means our family grows by that number every year. This develops into a great support system when it's needed, and unfortunately we've gotten a lot of practice at supporting each other due to the tragedies we have faced together. The reason we have had so many tragedies is because we have such a big family. Big families are great! There is more excitement and energy, and every day brings a new adventure. However, big families also bring about more tragedy because with more people, there are more issues. Those 1,500+ people each have family and friends of their own, and the more interconnected we become, the more tragedies we see.
There is so much focus on the tragedy that we are facing at work. This includes on-the-job injuries, Line of Duty Deaths, and injuries off the job. However, we don't prepare appropriately for the secondary family tragedies which affect us and many members of our department. These types of tragedies are injuries to family members from traumatic incident on a vacation, a child of a firefighter who is diagnosed with a life-threatening condition, a divorce of a firefighter, a legal issue for a firefighter family member, a death of a loved one.
During tragedy there is an outpouring of offers from firefighters. We are doers. We make things happen, and we like to be in control. This means when tragedy strikes, we know what to do. It's how we are wired, and the training we go through embeds that mentality deep within our souls. We want to help. Even when we don't know what is happening or how to help, we ARE GOING TO HELP! This is a remarkable characteristic that allows us to work in environments in which the average individual would curl up in the fetal position and cry. It allows us to interact with individuals at their worst moment and with gruesome injuries and unspeakable sights and still function at a high level. However, when taken out of the setting of a 911 call, and thrust into a hospital waiting room or the home of a hurting firefighter family we sometimes lack the ability to step back and see how we can REALLY help the family. There are times where I have figured out very quickly that I am not the best person to facilitate spiritual and emotional healing for a family. There are lots of reasons why people connect and why others don't. There are similar backgrounds, experiences, or even belief systems. Regardless of the reason, we have to evaluate how to help before we jump in with both feet and go all firefighter mode on families who are hurting. The last thing we need to do is overwhelm them. What we do as a firefighter family is overwhelming on its own.
How can a fire department appropriately prepare for tragedies? I believe these five steps will assist you as you prepare to help your personnel.
1. Remind your personnel that tragedies will occur.
This begins in the pre-employment process. Our minimum standards for firefighters needs to include a portion on emotional wellness for the firefighter. This needs to include a section about PTSD and PTSG. It also needs to include an explanation into the dynamic of the firefighter family. Too many new hires are not aware of how different this dynamic is.
This also needs to be included in the orientation of the new hire. Some departments have a one day tutorial and then personnel start on the trucks. Other departments have a 26-week course where the new employee is trained and certified in firefighter, EMT, and Paramedic credentials before beginning on the truck. Many departments fall somewhere in the middle. Regardless of how long you train and orient your new personnel, you have to make sure this training is part of what new hires receive from you.
2. Have a plan for how to respond to tragedies.
If you know tragedies will come, it makes sense to have a plan.
3. Assign one person to oversee the needs of the affected family.
At PBCFR we have designated this person as the "family liaison." When tragedy occurs, and it is clear there will be needs for a family or individual, we assign a family liaison to assist. This person basically becomes a "gatekeeper" for the family. Firefighters will come from all corners of the globe to help, and the liaison becomes the person to protect the family. All requests and updates go in and come out through the liaison. This allows the family to meet the emotional and spiritual needs relating to the tragedy while the liaison can handle all other requests. In our experiences these responsibilities have covered a wide range of needs including but not limited to the following: packing for a move, helping with the family business, organizing meals for the family, updating the fire department with a daily email, handling any media requests, cleaning the house, organizing a babysitting schedule for children, fixing vehicles, and much, much more.
4. Have a team ready to assist with all other needs.
There needs to be a team of people who are prepared to handle the intricacies of a firefighter family tragedy or loss. This team can be made up by any positions within the fire service as long as each person has the proper training. Our team consists of a couple of union representatives who handle all the meals for the family, a chaplain who handles the spiritual needs and any funeral planning if necessary, a CISM representative who is ready to debrief or defuse crews or individuals as needs, a peer support representative who is ready to come alongside a firefighter who is identified (or self-identifies) as needing help, an administrative representative who can help with updates and further needs. Most of the requests for extra help are directed to our chief of ops and our union president—depending on what the need is. We also let our EAP representative know the specifics of the situation so the counselors can be prepared for possible phone calls and/or visits.
5. Follow-up with those who suffered the tragedy.
Once the tragedy has passed (i.e. the family member has been buried, the firefighter has recovered from the injuries, the firefighter has returned to work, or enough time has passed that most everyone else has moved on), it is imperative to follow-up with the firefighter and the family member involved. This will require individuals assigned to do follow-up. You can't just leave it alone and hope that someone picks up the phone or drives over to visit the family after the tragedy has passed. There have to be some designated people to accomplish this task.
You also need to create a culture where your people feel comfortable to continue touching base with those who have had tragedy far beyond the time after the tragedy has passed. One of the messages I try to give at every funeral at which I speak is to reach out to people when God places their name on your mind. There is a reason you're thinking about them. Pick up the phone and send a text. Make a phone call. Reach out on social media. Send a letter. Or maybe you could even go old school and stop by for a personal face-to-face visit.