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By Sean W. Stumbaugh, Battalion Chief (Retired)
When I was a supervisor in the fire department, my crews had a nickname for me: The Red Man. I embraced the moniker to some degree and I would joke with them, “Don’t make me take out the Red Man.” This was a term of endearment (at least that’s what I liked to believe) in many cases, but I knew it was born from numerous times that I led with anger. In hindsight this is not a great way to lead.
So, what was really going on here? I hadn’t been brought up in some military academy where I learned to be a drill sergeant when things didn’t go my way. Was there something else at work? Something I couldn’t really put my finger on? After retirement, I realized some of this behavior was born out of stress I was feeling, at work and at home.
I was confident retirement would fix this issue and my life would be a breeze. I soon found out that retirement was something I wasn’t fully prepared for. I went through a two-year transition that was more difficult than being at work. Fortunately, I had some support mechanisms that helped see me through
This experience made me want to know more about the stress we face as firefighters. So I reached out to an expert in the field, Jeff Dill, founder and CEO of Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance (FBHA). In this article, I’ll share some insights Jeff opened my eyes to, with the hopes that they might be eyeopening for you, too. And in my next article, I’ll share three steps all fire service professionals can take to combat the negative effects of work-related stress.
1,100 and Counting One of my goals when I was a training chief was to design training programs that reduced the risk of line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) by targeting the root causes of LODDs. We commonly use the number 100 to explain how many of us die on the job each year. This number is an average, and the actual figure fluctuates, but unfortunately the deviation is small.
Jeff Dill stresses an entirely different number: 1,102—the number of confirmed firefighter and EMS suicides he has validated since he began studying the issue. “These are not merely numbers, they are the names and faces of brothers and sisters who have left us behind,” Jeff says. “That’s always been our message at the FBHA. We never want to forget them.” Jeff now dedicates his professional life to helping reduce this growing number.
Call It By Name So, what is it we are struggling with? We can—and should—call it Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS) or PostTraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). We’re hardly alone in being at risk for PTS; military personnel, police officers and other first responders face it too—not to mention anyone who experiences a traumatic experience, such as being assaulted or witnessing death or abuse.
SW Division President Tom Bradley along with members of the executive committee have met to discuss the current needs in Texas and Louisiana as a result of Hurricane Harvey. President Bradley commented with Texas and Louisiana located in the heart of our division, we feel it’s critical that we offer this local assistance. Executive Director Moatts has been in touch with vendors and suppliers who are also willing to help the division and leaders of the area as soon as more information is gathered. “We don’t want to be a nuisance, we just want them to know we are here if and when needed” – Chief Tom Bradley.
Moatts has been in touch with division president-elect Randy Parr, fire chief of Tomball Texas. Chief Parr is dealing with flooding in his town. Tomball is located just 30 miles north of downtown Houston. Chief Parr stated that his unmet needs are “help with evacuation and care of the people.”
The leadership of the Division is conducting a needs assessment with area leaders. Currently operations are still in rescue phase however, the recovery phase will bring additional challenges and needs at that time as well.
Moatts also reached out to Louisiana vice president Robert Benoit, fire chief of Lafayette Fire Department to offer assistance as they prepare for the potential of flooding from tropical storm Harvey.
Fire Chief James LeBlanc of St. Amant Volunteer Fire Department in Ascension Parish announced that Lamar-Dixon Conference Center is being used as a donation collection site for the Harvey relief effort. Chief LeBlanc reflected on the tragedy that struck his community last year. “A year ago this week the Texas people showed up in Louisiana with supplies that we needed, so we want to return the favor to them, ” as quoted to WAFB9.
More information of the relief efforts will be available in our electronic newsletter or visit http://swdnewsletter.wordpress.com
A real valid issue is being raised in our fire departments among our front line first responders..carrying concealed weapons. Depending on where you live, this is a protected right under the current laws. But, this law can create a whirlwind of liability for on-duty or off-duty public servants. Whether we agree or disagree with CCW, we must be proactive in these discussions and in developing policies to protect our teams, our departments and our citizens.
Taking the Heat
by Steven “Doc” Bernard
You arrive to a reported structure fire and it is fully involved. Fire is through the roof. The first thing you do is send all available personnel into the fire on interior attack mode……… No? Why not? Is there some written guide or training on how it is to be done? Of course there is. We size up the scene. We follow guidelines our department has adopted. We follow our training. That’s how we do things. We have bookcases full of regulations, manuals, operating guidelines, policies, and operating procedures. NFPA alone takes up a couple of those shelves. The more complex or potentially injurious an item is, the more manuals and information there is on how it is to be used. But we are used to that, because they are meant to help us do a dangerous job with some potentially dangerous tools.
Lately though, it seems the job has gotten even more perilous. This is not due to the fire, but from a section of the public that has been making threats against our departments, and in some cases where units have been struck by gunfire. And logically, our personnel want to be protected from these assaults. We see departments issuing bullet-‐resistant vests and helmets, and some organizations have been calling for or allowing their personnel to be armed while on duty.
But in polling a number of departments that I have some connections with across the country, I asked two questions of them. First, “Does your department allow concealed or open carry of a firearm on-‐duty or on scene?” And secondly, “Does your department have a written policy about it?” What I found, in my unscientific poll, was that if the answer was “No, it is not allowed”, there was a written policy in place. But, if the answer was “Yes…well…only certain calls…” “Only certain people can”, or “If the Chief says okay”, I found that there was usually no written policy associated with it or only a verbal/assumed policy, if that. This article is NOT being written to promote or prohibit our personnel from being allowed to carry. That is for the individual department to decide, in my mind. But for there to be an allowance to carry this new potentially life-‐threatening equipment in our workspace, there must be a policy in place that sets out how, where, and what level of training must be achieved. Otherwise, those departments could very well be setting themselves up for a lawsuit and sorrow. Personally, I have my CCW permit and the blessing from my state to carry as a private citizen and I want to protect that right. But on a fire department, whether career or volunteer, we are not private citizens while we are doing the job. We are invited into people’s homes, and sometimes we don’t even wait for permission to enter private property. John Q. Public does not have those same privileges.
We represent the department/agency/county/city/township that has hired us. We are now held to a higher and stricter standard than Joe Citizen with his carry permit. So I ask all of you, what is your department’s policy on the carry of firearms while on a call and/or at the firehouse? If you have them established, then this question is already answered. But if you haven’t, this article is addressed to you. We are looking at major liabilities if we do not seriously address this within our departments.
I am not against protecting ourselves, but I am also not ignorant to the fact that both the department and the individual could face severe civil and legal penalties if there was no policy regarding it. You see, now we need talk about responsibility and liability.
There are some laws that might defend a person’s actions but that does not mean the departments are immune from a case being brought forward and need to be defended to prevent it from going further if someone is shot by a department employee while on duty/call. A case being sought incurs attorney fees, and if they name the individual as well as the department…and should there be a motion to sever the case…the individual may be left holding the proverbial “bag” if there was no written policy that the individual was to follow, and if there was any hint of impropriety, negligence or acting without authorization. Or the department could be held liable for not having regulations in place that addressed this issue for that employee. And yes, a volunteer, while representing a department is still an employee and an agent of that department. How many departments accept that Ricky Rescue, new on the department, can properly and adequately get on the pump and get us water…when his experience is just playing with his sump pump in the backyard? No, we put him through Pump Operations Class and we can verify he can do the job properly. We won’t even talk about driving the rig… How about something more lethal that we see nearly everyday, a defibrillator/monitor? Will we allow Freddy the New Fireman run around with the paddles without confirming he is certified and trained how to use them? The spreaders? But yet we are allowing our personnel to bring personal equipment on to scene and to the station that has lethal implications and yet we have no policy governing it’s carry or use while on the job. We have no record of their training with this equipment, other than a CCW permit, which is fairly easy to get in many states, and some states don’t require any actual education or training to carry a firearm legally.
So I have been becoming more and more concerned with the calls to allow firefighters and EMS personnel to be allowed to carry while on duty, yet not seeing any written guidelines or policies about it. Some departments just allow it to happen and don’t think anything about it and have set no policy as they are afraid of Constitutional issues.
We must remember that we can set standards for the use of equipment when it is used in the line of duty. A choice by the employee has to be made: adhere to the policy, or seek employment elsewhere if they feel the standards are too strict.
We have to protect our departments by setting policy and standard. But not having that policy to be able to benchmark off of, is opening us to high levels of liability. Firearms and their place at the station and on a scene need to be addressed, and department policy needs to be written as to who can carry and when they can carry a firearm while on duty.
Mind you, I am on the range at least 2-‐3 times a month, have extensive firearms training, and a veteran. So, to even hint that I am anti-‐firearm or anti-‐self protection is a non-‐starter. I just want to see any department that does not have a policy about carrying while on duty to establish one.
Whether it is accepting of it, or forbidding of it, let’s make sure everyone on our department knows what the policy is and what the requirements are should they be allowed.
Steven Bernard is a firefighter, conributing author, writer, video and photo journalist.