Take Care of Your Department Members after Trauma

By Michael P. Capoziello

Sometimes … as hard as it may be for us to understand, there are incidents that occur when we fail despite how good a crew we may have had on the first due rigs.

Sometimes it doesn’t matter how hard you may have trained and prepared for your moment to perform. Sometimes it does not matter how fast you got out the door and arrived on scene.

Sometimes bad things happen to good people.

Sometimes an incident is so bad, it will leave you questioning why you got into this business in the first place.

No matter how large or small, busy or slow, every department eventually at some point in time will be exposed to a traumatic event that will shake their members as well as the community they serve to the core.

As a chief or line officer, you need to be prepared for this eventuality. You need to look out for your members, especially the younger probies who, along with their families, have put their trust in your organization.

Think about this … it’s quite possible some of your 17-,18- and 19-year-old members may have never been to a funeral, let alone witnessed a person dying right in front of their eyes.

How do you prepare or train your probies for this moment in time when it arrives? Unfortunately, you don’t. A young person’s exposure to death is most likely what they have seen on television, movies or video games. It’s a whole different story when it’s the real deal played out before their very eyes.

Back in the day, you either sucked it up, dealt with the situation like a man (most of the time faking it) or you quietly faded away from the organization.

“Let them go, we don’t need any wussies in our organization anyway!” the gruff, old-timey chief would bark. Who knows how many of those “wussies” walked away forever scarred from their experiences with no support or intervention from the organizations they trusted in when they raised their right hands and swore to all that “stuff.”

When the “sometimes” incident happens to your department, “someone” has to realize the situation at hand and do something to help your responders make some sense of the emotional trauma they may be going through. Each individual, no matter how old and no matter how much time and experience in your department, will deal with a given situation differently. Part of the unique and satisfying nature of serving as a volunteer firefighter is actually serving the community you live in, perhaps the community you grew up in. You’re serving the community your children go to school in and serving in the community many of your relatives and close friends reside in. “Neighbors helping neighbors” is not just a cliché for many departments.

Unfortunately, because of this dynamic, there may be times when we respond to traumatic incidents in which we know the victims involved personally. The victims involved may also be relatives or friends of friends we know. The human connection that is normally removed from our emotions and actions as first responders is put back into the equation. This is no longer a nameless face in need of our help. Failure is not acceptable and when things go bad, the emotional toll put on your responders will be tremendous.

What can you do as leaders of your departments? You can notify your counties respective Critical Incident Stress Management teams (CISM), who also have professional doctors, therapists and social workers who can be called upon if needed on their rosters. You can call upon your local clergy to come down to the firehouse and just be there for your members. Or, at the very least, you can get the responders together who operated at and witnessed the event. Give them the opportunity to simply “vent” their emotions which will start the healing process.

You cannot ignore what happened. Talk about it, listen to each other. If someone does not want to talk about it, that’s OK too. Just give folks the opportunity to vent.

In a nutshell, this is what CISM and all previous models of stress debriefing are all about. It’s about letting everyone know its OK not to be OK, that the reactions they are having are completely normal. It’s about being there for one another and letting them know they are not alone in what they may be feeling.

I urge all chiefs and line officers to brush up on CISM and what it has to offer if you are not aware of these programs already. You can’t afford to lose good people, and possibly send them on their way emotionally scarred and “broken” when their “sometimes” moment arrives.