The brotherhood/sisterhood of Fire and EMS is difficult to explain to those who have not experienced it firsthand. Let’s skip the long-winded details: the movies are true. We love each other. Some days, we hate each other. We cook together, hang out outside of work, and bicker like siblings. We celebrate together. We mourn together. We support one another through good days and bad days, new adventures and difficult hurdles.
Every single call brings unknowns. The fires are unpredictable. The next EMS call has an unknown scenario behind the door. We must, and do, trust each other with our lives.But we can’t save everyone. Fire, EMS, Police… we know this to be a part of the job and we each find our own way to accept this fact.That doesn’t make it easier. This weekend, we will bury a brother after a self-inflicted gunshot. He committed suicide. That is as clear as I can make it and I say it two ways so there may be no mistake.
Mental health is real. Even heroes are vulnerable. Our leader, mentor, and friend? Our brother? Why couldn’t we save him? Mental health is real. (I’m going to keep saying it, too). Why didn’t we know? This is not supposed to happen to one of us. Except, it did happen to us. FFBHA reports 10 firefighter suicides already in 2016 and 114 in 2015. JEMS’ survey reported that for EMT’s and Paramedics, 37% of us have thought about suicide while the national average is below 4%. Attempts were surveyed at 6.6% while the general population sat much lower at 0.5%.
To make the data worse? We are working with old numbers, unreported attempts, and undocumented suicides. Even so, the numbers are there. They are angry. They are shouting for us to acknowledge:Mental health is real.Even heroes are vulnerable.We see the very moment where life begins and ends. Families have hysterically yelled at us to “save him! save him!” while all along we know they are gone. Accident scenes where we believe again from the miracle that there were survivors. Fires flashover. Apparatus get into collisions. Children cling to us. Spouses look towards us. Parents beg us. You must do something! We must do something.
On my very first day of EMT school 9+ years ago, my instructor projected a slide that displayed common characteristics of those in emergency services. This image has stuck with me (for reasons I don’t actually understand) and some of the words listed were: strong, stubborn, brave, empathetic, problem solver, quick, good under pressure… drinks too much, depressed, over thinker…
It has never been a secret that we are expected to carry heavy weights on our shoulders. I would like to think that our second families help to share that weight we hold within us, but the truth is that it doesn’t always work out like that. There were unwritten rules: don’t cry, don’t admit to nightmares, don’t look weak by saying that a call got to you.Listen to me. You are not weak. You may cry. You should admit when it is affecting you.You are strong! You are a hero! You are still human!
A few months ago, we had to bury a brother. I do not know what his reasons were. I do not know if there is anything anyone could have done. But we buried a brother lost to suicide and what I do know is that I want to make every effort to try and prevent this experience from ever reoccurring. If you cannot speak to your family, brothers or sisters, officers, or chiefs, know that your options don’t end there. There are professionals trained in therapy, and some in working with people like me and you.
There are great organizations such as The Code Green Campaign who offer many resources for first responders in need. Don’t huff at the debriefing next time. Accept yourself and one another as humans first, and allow the time to heal. Mental health is real. There is zero shame in asking for or accepting help. Facing that fear and speaking to others shows everyone just how courageous you really are.We love each other. Now let’s be there for one another.
– Story written by RJ Miller, 26 year old EMT from NJ. 9 years in EMS.