You hear the stories of brothers, and sisters who are claustrophobic and you chuckle. You scoff at the people not capable of making decisions, they seem to “freeze” when they are under duress. You “tch, tch, tch” the NIOSh report of the fireman who made a mistake ventilating, setting the stage for the burns sustained by another firefighter that lead to his death. You watch a video of our “brothers” on a fire where tactically they appear to not know what they are doing. This video spreads virally from Youtube, to Statter, to Facebook. The comments by all the other “hard charging fire eating truck apes” are often harsh criticisms, all in the name of better training, and tactics “killing fireman the old fashioned way” … you fall in line posting “train like your life depends on it, because it does”. You read an article about a fireman who rips his mask off in a fire, and standing up, he begins to run in an atmosphere he must know is toxic, and fatal. You shake your head incredulously wondering “what was he thinking”.
Then one day everything changes, something happens, and your world is turned upside down. What you were once so sure of seems to have abandoned you, leaving you wondering if you were ever that “good” at your job. Your breathing becomes accelerated at times, and the anxiety builds. Your ability to do the things you once were capable of doing has left you … your left feeling emasculated, you begin to avoid certain training exercises, maybe even making excuses for your new found “weaknesses”. These weaknesses seem to be gaining ground on you … maybe I’m just not drinking enough, or puffing enough weed … maybe I should conquer more infidelity to prove I am a man … and if all else fails, there is always rage, and if all else fails I’ll just isolate myself. No one will ever know my secret.
Sound familiar, or far fetched?
According to researchers this is not just an occurrence, but a very common occurrence in law enforcement, the military, professional sports, aviation, and the corporate world not to mention rape, and assault victims, or terrorism.
So why should the Fire Service be exempt? Ignorance.
The fire services dirty little secret is firemen get scared. Bad shit happens, and it effects us, it builds within us, and can have a synergistic effect. Then one day it happens, your armor cracks.
You try EAP (if your lucky enough to have it) and your told your normal … by a woman, or a mild mannered man with a sensible manicure (fml), neither who have ever made a hot smoky hallway. What do they know, PTSD my ass! I’ve never been to war.
The truth of the matter is they are right, your probably more normal than you think. How much tragedy can anyone see before it effects them? Who determines what a tragedy is? Maybe it is just a bad experience, and not a tragedy. Maybe you barely made it out of the hallway into the stairwell as the floor flashed … or maybe you were pushed too hard in training as a recruit, and you developed a fear, albeit a “small” fear.
Did I just mention training can cause these symptoms? Bet your ass I did. To quote a term from Christopher Brenan it’s called “Training Scars”, and they will turn into monsters (The MOnster Within) if left untreated, just like any other PTSD exposure. I’ve explained many of the common signs of PTSD above, now I will explain how it happens.
It starts with the fear, (maybe from a previous experience, or founded in a lack of confidence) the anxiety builds, which in turn causes your heart rate to accelerate. Your physically taxed, and the anxiety adds to the rate increase, once your rate exceeds 170 (+/-) your brain shifts into the “Mid-Brain” which is commonly referred to as fight or flight. This is where the irrational thought processing takes place, its where your respirations get rapid and shallow, where your inability to think rationally will kill you … it has been the demise of over 230 firemen over the past 15 years (info provided by USFA via LODD NIOSH reports).
There is a host of other symptoms such as tunnel vision, auditory exclusion, loss of small motor function, loss of bowel/bladder, and dry mouth to name a few. These occurrences, and symptoms are well documented in law enforcement, and the military, but virtually invisible (undocumented) in the fire service.
Back to training. For those that confuse battles of attrition as training, your wrong, and worse yet your responsible for creating PTSD in firemen by teaching it as training. Listen closely, I AM NOT SAYING ENDURANCE TRAINING IS BAD. I am saying confusing training, where you teach firemen viable skills that they can develop over time, and once they are mastered, they may then confront endurance (testing). Like boxing, if your new to boxing you would not step into the ring with a pro. If you did you would wake up in the emergency room with a broken nose, broken jaw, and both eyes swollen shut. What did you learn? You have to start with the most fundamental things first, like the jab, and how to hold your hands when you throw a punch. As you refine those skills, more are added, maybe body punches, how to bob/weave, to generate power from your hip. As you refine these skills you then learn to throw them in combination with each other. All the while your practicing on heavy bags, speed bags, focus mitts, and in front of a mirror. Then, maybe, you can start to spar with someone who will go easy on you so you can learn rhythm, breathing under duress, keeping your balance centered. As you get better, your sparring partners get better … and if your good enough, maybe you reach pro status … a big reach, but I think you follow my example.
The technique of using an example other than your primary subject (fire fighting) as an example allows for your subconscious to make the associations with the techniques I am discussing. If I were to discuss SAR, Force Entry, Ventilation, Hose/Stream Management, Incident Command, Situational Awareness, Staying Oriented or any of the other hundreds of techniques we use in the fire service it would have elicited a justifiable response, causing you to miss the point, and justify rather than listen … the point is best made with a neutral experience, which is why I used boxing.
To this point, in this article, we have covered PTSD, the development of neural pathways, RPDM, and we haven’t even begun to speak of body control. This is where you incorporate visualization techniques, which is what almost all of us do subconsciously but need to learn to do consciously. Self talk always precedes anxiety, mastering what we tell ourselves is the first step in getting better at anything we wish to do. Breath work, breathing is not done properly in the fire service, and it is the key to physiologically regaining control of ourselves.
If you objectively look at the information I have provided (I know it is extremely difficult to get intent and meaning across with the written word) you can probably recognize some things in your life that have effected you. You may even find yourself agreeing with some of these things, even though you may not completely grasp the concepts, that is not uncommon. I think the subconscious recognizes things … similar to that “gut” feeling that has kept you alive all these years. Some things just resonate.
I apologize if I have not answered all the questions you may have regarding Stress Inoculation, my lecture typically takes at least 4 hours, and a lot of ground is covered (character, learning processes, decision making, training, ptsd, and much more). I wanted to try and unlock a provocative thought in you … that maybe, just maybe, the stories you hear, videos you view, or actions you see in person may not always be explained away as people being ass clowns. Maybe there is more involved than you know … because after all, how do you know what you don’t know?
Think about the men and women who have died not knowing what may have kept them alive … there are at least 230 of them … so check your ego at the door, stay teachable, and remember, we don’t wear capes, we wear bunker gear.
God Bless, stay low, and stay strong brothers and sisters.
The Fire Factory