A moment to reflect

We were on a wreck recently where an individual had gone off the interstate going about 90 mph. He impacted a concrete drainage ditch and flipped several times before coming to a stop. After we got the patient into the ambulance and on the way to the hospital, I managed to capture one of my crew taking a moment to look back at what was left of the car. It brought recent events to mind.

It was brought to the department’s attention recently that one of the guys on the crew had a serious problem with some of the less desirable aspects of our work; the cleanup of bad car wrecks to be more specific. It bothered him to the point that he went to a psychiatrist. I was troubled that he not only was troubled by this enough that he went to a psychiatrist, but that he felt ashamed enough that he had to hide it from the rest of us. I guess it may be the mentality that comes with the perfusion (don’t show weakness, don’t falter, I have to set an example.), but it’s something that needed dealt with. My department has always provided the option to go see a psychiatrist if you wanted it but it’s obvious that that offer wasn’t being take up on, and we almost lost a good man because of it. In this line of work, there’s always going to be something that bothers you. Some of us take a moment to reflect while on scene, and some of us go home to talk to our spouses, but then there are some of us that don’t do anything and instead let it eat us up inside.

Everyone seems to take their own approach to dealing with these types of stresses, and many take more than one approach at a time. Studies have shown some of the most common ways that this was done many of which were found that were subconscious approaches.

Some of the personal efforts are:

Wait and Self- Monitor Changes in Evoked Reactions
Deliberately Let Time Pass

Rest and Relaxation
Deliberately Go Somewhere
Get Comfortable and Deliberately Relax

Find Physical and Verbal Relief
Deliberately Use Humor
Deliberately Release Feelings
Deliberately Exercise
Confide in Spouses
Have loosely structured discussions with colleagues

Re-establish Personal Routines and Sense of Subjective Control
Deliberately Take Charge of Your Life
Deliberately Re-establish Routines

In some of the more serious events where a department needs to step in it is recommended:

Mental Health Professionals Unilaterally Recommend Mandatory Attendance
Intervene Within 48 – 72 hrs
Convene Group Meeting and Commit Officers to Attend
Graded Confrontation of Memories of Critical Event
Deliberately Talk About Events In General Terms
Deliberately Avoid Some Reminders of Events
Adhere To Prescribed Agenda of Successive Protocol Stages.

Obviously not wanting it to get to the more severe situations; our department decided to take a more direct approach to this. We’ve always tried to do after action reviews but after our latest event we decided to make AAR’s, or critical stress debriefings mandatory after fatalities or mass casualties. I’m still not comfortable at these particular meetings but I feel it a necessary step, whether they are effective or not I guess only time will tell. I guess my purpose in sharing this is to encourage my fellow first responders and emergency personnel to pay attention to their colleges and themselves. If you notice stress starting to build up or if you need to just talk, do it; don’t try and hide it until it reaches a critical point.

Strike a Pose: The importance of image

When on the job, our image that we portray to ourselves and to the public is crucial. The public relies on us to provide stabilization to their lives when they’re at their worst, and support to the community when we aren’t on calls. When it comes down to it we as firefighters agree to put ourselves on display when we agree to be on the department.

There are many ways that this is done. First and most obvious is through our physical appearance. When we take pride in our equipment and our gear the public sees it and they take comfort in it. When our equipment looks broken down and our gear looks tattered it’s difficult to have confidence in a department’s ability to perform. It’s seen when we are doing charitable events, by spectators when we are on scene and by the victims on scene. It can affect our funding and more importantly it’s embarrassing. It’s hard to hold your head up high and look the public in the eye when they don’t think you can do the job you promised.

On the bright side, this is one of the easiest things to remedy. When I first got on my department, we didn’t have state of the art equipment, heck we didn’t even have new equipment. The apparatus that we had were used, and the gear was “hand downs”. Even so we kept a good appearance. We cleaned and polished our trucks, washed the hoses down, and made sure everything was inventoried after every call. Even though our stuff was old we looked good.

This carried over into our confidence, which in turn brings me to the most important way that we put ourselves on display. The way we react isn’t only important to the public but to ourselves. When on a scene the attitude is infectious. If a firefighter is unsure or panicky not only will it adversely affect the patients but it can have drastic effects on your fellow firefighters. This holds true for all firefighters but especially for the seasoned firefighters and officers. When you have a strong adverse reaction those that look up to you can question their ability to perform; and the people that rely on you to watch their back can start to question whether you’ll be there or not. On the other hand, being able to show confidence in what you’re doing and not over react to situations will instill confidence in your crew and everyone around you.

Sadly this isn’t the easiest thing to deal with. There are a litany of things that can cause us to react adversely from how the people around you react to tragic things you might see. Your best ally will be experience, but even then you’ll have to be careful. I remember a call many years back. There was a bad pile up on the interstate. It was a particularly bad winter storm and we had to put civilians in our command unit to get them out of the cold and off of the interstate as vehicles were continuing to add to the crash. The interstates were closed down, and I don’t know how they were getting past the HP but that’s aside from the point. I had just got the last individual into our command, an old suburban, when a car appeared out of the snow sliding sideways towards us. I jumped in and holding on to the spare told them to gun it. The car ended up bumping the car we were just helping and coming to a stop short of us. One of the newer guys on the department was reasonably scared and asked if we should go back and see if they needed help. I was embarrassed when the first thing for the civilians to hear was one of the other guys saying to hell with that.

It’s an incident that still bothers me today. I keep looking back on it and wondering if there was a way we could have prevented it. When it comes down to it there wasn’t really. It didn’t stop us from doing our job, we were tired, and the individual said the first thing that came to mind. It was a simple over reaction to the circumstance. But the look in the civilian’s eyes that was next to me was really hard for me to deal with. It’s a prime example of what not to do and we put on classes on how to act in front of the public because of it. But when it comes down to it, I find that it’s far more effective to instill confidence in my crew by showing confidence to them. It’s not easy some times and it’s an individual battle for each person, but one that needs to be undertaken.

Enjoy what you do and you’ll never work a day in your life

It’s a saying that I holds true during most of my job but there are certain days and some times weeks that go above and beyond. The Hensel fire was going on back in June of ’02 and it was one of the worst and best fires I’ve been on. It started out as a rather rushed fire. We were in Casper getting supplies and weren’t even supposed to be available for assignment. There was a last minute change and we were tossed in with a strike force. We quickly bought needed supplies including a pair of boots for me. I will never again get a set of Georgias. By the end of the fire the top of my feet were worn through and bleeding and the soles were just one giant blister.

We ended up on the Hensel Fire where every morning started out with a long drive from camp to the area of the fire we were working on. A local rancher had been causing problems and we ended up getting diverted to a new area. We came to this beautiful meadow and set it up as our staging area for the day before we continued up to our part of the fire. Before we could continue though, the rancher decided that he didn’t want us continuing. The reason for this was told to me but I can’t say whether it was speculation or not so I’ll leave it out of this. What it comes down to is that the head of the fire was making a run for it as well so our div. sup. decided it was best for us to stage there until the run was done. It turned out to set the stage for a hell of a day.

We spent the morning watching helicopters dip from one of the ponds and eventually made our way up the hill side to get some better angles on the meadow so we could get some better photo ops. In actuality it was an excuse to just do something. That didn’t last long before we got bored and headed back down to the staging point. And shortly after, competition ensued… Friendly competition of course. Basic things like wood cutting contest, races, arm wrestling, anything we could come up with. It wasn’t long before bets were going around and everyone was having a good time. As you can imagine, when you’re used to doing a job that’s physically demanding, you tend to get restless when you have nothing to do. More importantly, people get creative. Getting more and more involved in competition most people got so involved that slipping away to get some mischief done became possible.

The mischief started out as a simple joke. Our crew was patched together from several crews which is normal. In this case, we had some real… unique individuals with us. One of the crews that got teamed up with us was a bunch of rooks. They had never really seen fire before, at least nothing big, and they were gullible as hell. So while a couple of us slipped away, a couple of us started telling stories of previous fires. They listened with awe believing everything we said, which at this point had actually been true. But of course being the pranksters that we are, we decided to take advantage of that.

Earlier that day, we had seen a duck that had succumbed to smoke inhalation and managed to get it tucked nicely away on a cow pie. After some effort, we managed to float it out into the pond that the helicopter was dipping from. You might be surprised to know how hard it is to slip away from a group, and set up a prank like this without getting caught. I still don’t know how we did it. Either way, somehow we managed to convince them that ducks only sleep while floating on cow pies. It even went as far as to convince them that they only sleep in the middle of ponds as a safety feature. They took thousands of pictures and spent hours trying to wake it. We told them that as long as the head is under its wing, it would never wake up. They finally gave up and we gave the poor thing a proper burial.

Ominous Glow: When Panic Meets Rational Thought

Have you ever had one of those moments when you thought, “great… This is it.”? I would love to say that that would be an understatement here but unfortunately it’s exactly what I was thinking. I wasn’t capable of anything more at the time. Let me set the situation up for you so you might be able to understand a little better. We got paged out to a methane compressor station fire. When we arrived on scene we found that it was one of the twenty seven compressor buildings on this particular facility. Each building contained four engines and each engine running over a cool mill. This particular facility ran 24/7 and was a major supply line so the company man on scene was eager to get the place back up and running. We had the gas to the facility shut down and began suppression operations. The crew was constantly getting in the way and putting themselves in danger in the process. We eventually had to have the police remove the crew to prevent them from being a further hindrance.

As you can imagine tension was already high on this call but suppression efforts started going our way. We contained the fire to the half of the building where the initial ignition occurred losing only two of the engines. As the initial battle started to die down, try to imagine if you can an eerie silence. The fire was out and there was a lot of heat still in the building but there was still a lot of smoke so it was black in there. I shut the nozzle down and all I can hear is my SCBA hissing from each breath and there’s nothing I can see. For now I’m just listening, trying to hear any noise. After the way this call started, this silence is unnerving to say the least. I was just starting to tell my partner that we should pull out and get the building ventilated when I hear the deafening roar. As I turn toward the sound I seen this flash of light and instead of reacting, I just pause. My mind went blank and I just sat there for a second thinking “well…. That was a good life I guess.”

It must not have been that long that I paused because my team told me I tore out of there faster than they had ever seen me move and with murder in my eyes. It didn’t take me any time to figure out what had happened and when I came out of that building I was ready to do things that are unbefitting of a firefighter, or most people for that matter. Luckily for the company man, our Chief was the one that got to him before any of us.

In this instance, the officers on scene just didn’t have the manpower to fully secure the scene. The company man had wanted to get the facility back up and running so he grabbed a couple hands and turned it on; but when he had the gas turned back on, he failed to turn the bypass on to that building. Needless to say, the entire facility was shut down immediately and everyone that wasn’t fire or police was removed from the facility. Up until this instance, scene security hadn’t been a problem. We worked with the methane companies well and they always co-operated with us without question. So to this point there was no need for certain regulations to be made.

It was a bad situation that led to some serious meetings and thought being put into our policies. More importantly, it also gave me another perspective on situations. It’s really hard to listen to a teacher telling you to be aware of the people surrounding a scene and implement it. You hear and understand the reasons but until you are put in a situation like this one, it doesn’t really sink in. There’s so much going on that it’s easy to miss things. But then something like this happens and you start taking that extra time on the way to the call to think “what if”, and the time after the calls to actually analyze what went good and what could have gone better. It’s a personal experience that most of us will have to experience firsthand to get the benefit from but it’s a good example of where panic can meet rational thought.

An Invitation Not Taken

It’s kind of an early post this time around. Instead of my normal every other Friday thing I got hit early with that pesky little critter that many of us know as a muse. I always feel like there’s something I need to be doing and my muse is constantly nagging at me to get something done. The problem is that my muse never tells me what it is it wants; it just wants something. Usually it’ll wait around for a convenient time for me but sometimes it just won’t wait. I haven’t figured out what entertains my muse but whatever it is, I guess I kind of enjoy when it happens. It provides a well needed, albeit short, break to the constant nagging. This time I got the urge to just sit down and write. Nothing in particular, just letting my fingers put down whatever they want. It started out as a few ideas then one thing led to another and I found an old rough draft. It was more of a very basic idea but after a little editing I have a short story. It’s nothing that will go any further but it was enjoyable to write none the less. Regardless, I felt it was post worthy so here it is.

 

An Invitation Not Taken

It’s a simple looking little restaurant that you happen by, the town’s closest thing to a cybercafé. It’s late at night and you pulled off the interstate to take a break from driving and grab a cup of coffee. As you walk by the large front windows, you look inside to see a sole occupant sitting in the bay window sipping on coffee and browsing the net. You can tell his story just by looking at him. You’ve been there yourself and seen it many times before. He has internet at home but he doesn’t want to be there. There’s a disinterested but isolated look to him. He doesn’t care about what he’s looking at, it’s not about the comp; he want’s companionship. It doesn’t have to be over night, even someone to sit and talk to would be nice. You suddenly realize that you’ve been staring and that you have a decision to make. Go into the truck stop and get a cup of coffee or risk this little restaurant and a conversation. A conversation would almost guarantee a longer stop than you wanted but by this time you have nothing to lose and the thought of stopping for the night sounds nice anyway.

You’re so involved in your thoughts that you don’t remember grabbing your coffee. All you know is that the aroma is like ambrosia to you. You cradle it in your hands breathing in the steam as you sit down in the table next to his. He looks familiar, there’s something about him. You don’t speak up and he doesn’t notice you, for now you just study him. You don’t try and hide it, he isn’t looking anyhow. Maybe it’s the situation that you’ve been in all your life or maybe it’s the look in his eyes as he stares at nothing at all. It’s a lost look and it hurts. He’s young, not more than thirty but more likely mid-twenties. He has so much more life to go and yet he’s lost hope in this little town but can’t bring himself to leave. What is it that keeps him here?

“I’ve seen that look before.” It’s a simple phrase spoken softly but he startles none the less, almost falling out of his seat. He’s been doing this longer than you thought. He looks around not seeing you at first, and when he finally notices you he does a double take. The conversation progresses as you expected. It bounces from topic to topic getting explicit on occasion but staying friendly and never venturing further. It’s sad really. He no longer has hope of finding what he wants; he’s happy with even the brief distraction that you offer. You talk through the night and find that he’s beyond dedicated to his job, addicted would be a more accurate description, and he loves his little town. There’s no way he’s going to leave at this point. He comes here every night hoping for change. This little town has so much potential and for some reason it just won’t grow.

As the sun starts to show over the mountains you see the warm rays flow over his face from the side. You suddenly realize where you know him from. A long time ago he was there to save you. He’s seen so many that you’re sure he doesn’t remember you. Now that the light is on him, you can see the age in his eyes. You never noticed it before; you were too involved in the conversation that you missed it. You can’t miss it now though, he’s tired and only going on because he knows it’s what he was meant for. It hurts more than you thought you could anymore. So many like you, he was there to save them when there was nothing to save. He gets up slowly, his body popping and cracking like he was eighty. He’s given more than his body can handle and as he walks out he offers a smile and thanks you for the company. As he leaves the restaurant he looks back over his shoulder and addressing you as if you were just another regular he smiles and offers one last comment. “I’m not done here just yet Nick. I think I have just a little left in me.” Of course he didn’t forget; he’ll never forget any of you.

Feeling almost foolish for thinking he might forget, you watch him go. As you sit there holding your coffee you think it’s funny; They may never ask for it and most may never see it, but even the rescuer need rescuing some times. You were sent here for a reason. You thought it was to offer an invitation; a simple offer to let it go, to finally rest. You weren’t told who you were supposed to give it to and now you know why. You knew him once even if for only a last couple of minutes. If you were told who it was you would have missed the night. You would have offered the invitation and left when it was turned down. He needed what you offered even if you didn’t know what that was. He needed a little companionship to help him go on. And at the end of the night it was that look in his eyes that let you know he wasn’t going to go tonight. You know this only because it was the same look that let you know he wasn’t ready for you to go. Sipping down the last of your coffee you fade out of this world, content to know that the invitation was still on the table and one day he’d accept it, even if he didn’t want to.

Spring Storm: Reminiscing Over the Past

It’s late in the day and I sit here in my warm recliner, looking out over the storm going on outside, and I’m reminded of an early spring storm we had some years ago. The storm was raging on much as it is this winters day with only the time of year being different. It wasn’t a peaceful night for long, as the call goes out for a single vehicle roll near the pass. If the storm here in town was bad then up at the pass it was nothing anyone should have been out in. At almost 10,000 feet the storm was pounding the pass and dropping snow faster than plows could hope to keep up with.

We look out at this weather and we think of how nice it is inside and how we dread going out in it. It’s easy to think of it as an inconvenience and get irritated over it. Often times I find I have to take the trip out in the truck to put myself in the right frame of mind. It must have been terrifying for that lady, trapped in her vehicle, the cold blowing in through the broken window. She had no cell signal, no way of knowing if anyone even knew that she was in need of help. A passerby had saw the wreck and drove down to where they got signal to call it in; but she had no way of knowing that.

It was probably fifteen minutes before we got the call and another twenty for us to make it that far up. We use the time to our advantage. We all know our roles in this play but we talk them out anyhow. We discuss where to place the engine if the vehicle is still in the road, or what we’ll do if it slid past the shoulder and off the edge. As new information comes in we update our strategy so by the time we arrive on scene we are as prepared as possible.

We arrive on scene just behind the ambulance. Our community is a small enough one that fire and ambulance are separate entities. We train together so we can work together but we have our separate jobs. And it’s times like these that provide necessity for it. Our firefighters are EMT’s as well so when we arrive on scene we can provide treatment but we need to send her down and get her where she can receive proper treatment.

Once she’d safely on her way down we finish securing the scene, directing traffic, and filling out the run report. It was an easy call when all said and done and everything went as planned. It may have been a cold afternoon but when all said and done that didn’t really bother me. I come back to a warm recliner and enjoy another snowy evening.

As I sit here reminiscing, the pager goes off once again and I get to go out on another call. Another car wreck on slick roads…. I guess my reminiscing can wait for another time when I sit in my recliner looking out of a snowy night, thinking about a call I once had.

Ahhh spring time in Wyoming... sometimes you never know what you're going to get.

Chaotic Serenity: What’s Never Expected

There are always certain things that you expect when you’re on a fire; peace isn’t one of them. It was probably the most surreal thing I have ever felt. It may sound cliché but when I was taking the picture it seemed as though the fire went silent. The heat of it radiated off of everything and made it feel like someone had wrapped me in a blanket but it was perfectly calm and everything around was peaceful, including the wildlife. There were birds chirping, even a deer lying down nearby. All the while a fire silently raging on… it was almost as if the day refused to acknowledge it happening.

It really strikes me as funny; I’ve spent some time trying to remember how loud it was but I just can’t. All I can remember is the sound of the chickadee chirping in the background while somewhere off to my right a meadowlark sang its tune. Just about ten yards to the right of this picture a doe is laying in a grassy field watching everything unfold and piney creek babbles on behind me. Just the slightest breeze occasionally moves through, not even strong enough to really disturb the smoke, just lightly tussling the grass and the sun shines down in a cloudless sky. I’ve never seen a nicer day.

When I’m too old to work anymore and the night is closing down around me, this will be one of those memories I cherish as I sit on a cold winter’s eve and sip coffee.