Quite surprised was I when I received an email where the NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) invited me to sit in a symposium with 60 other fire fighters from across the Nation including fire fighters from Canada to talk about fire safety in rural area’s. Who would have imagined that a just 2 year serving fire fighter was flying to Boston sharing his “know how” on what could go better in regards NFPA’s influence in rural fire related incidents and issues. When we started our symposium, one of the first questions asked by the NFPA was ‘what are the unique qualities, unique fire problems and unique fire prevention strategies, you all face in rural fire?’. After a very short pause in the audience, a veteran fire Chief spoke up and said, ’when we go shopping locally, we often get recognized and people stop us so they can thank us for what we do in our community’. This made me think, of what a nice gesture these thank you’s actually are, and how the other 59 fire fighters at this symposium responded with a nod, with words like ‘how awesome is that’ or just with a sigh.
Just that small gesture of appreciation does it for this group of fire fighters, they work hard, train hard and spend a lot of time away from their homes to protect their community. According to NFPA’s database over 69% of the fire fighters in our Nation are volunteer/non-paid. These volunteers are 24/7 ready to respond to a call; it could be 3 in the morning, during a Thanksgiving family dinner or their child’s birthday party they are willing to sacrifice their valuable time serving their community.
I really don’t want to address this post to volunteer first responders or fire fighters alone but also to the paid departments and to the other branches of first responders as in EMT, sheriff’s departments, police departments etc. The month of May is mental awareness month and many organizations that are affiliated with first responders have been focusing on the high risk of emotional and mental health of first responders. The jobs high pace work, stress and tragedy loaded events cause often job related trauma, depression and even suicidal thoughts. The numbers nationally of first responders committing suicide don’t lie and show that there is a drastic need of help necessary. There is also a drastic need of a culture switch necessary since the predominant culture in the first response field dictates that any sign of mental health issues show a sign of weakness. First responders act strong, prideful, brave and offer help all the time but rarely ask for help for themselves.
Imagine you receive a page or a call to a fire where you know there are non-surviving children trapped in the building that is on fire, or a call of a vehicle wreck where teens are needed to be extricated that are in critical condition. These tragic events that occur daily do something with the mind and emotional wellbeing of the first responders. Although dressed in uniform, acting with professional mannerism and pridefully showing a badge, these men and women that passionately do their job are just like any other average Joe, build out of the same flesh and blood as you are. It does a lot of emotional damage if you can’t sleep because you have the images of the lifeless children’s bodies imprinted in your mind or you wake up to the helpless screaming of the teens that were entrapped in a car wreck. Yes, it’s true that the first responders signed up for this kind of work and this is part of the job.
But to hear so now and then a ‘Thank You’ makes the same first responder that is struggling with Job trauma, depression or thoughts of suicide feel appreciated and those words are powerful words of healing.