The Ugly Truth About Firefighting The Public Doesn’t Understand….An Article From Uniform Stories

The ugly truth about firefighting the public doesn’t understand

They will never feel the profound sadness that we do as a result of seeing too much

Jul 17, 2016


By Michael Morse

We know what we see is real. We know how it feels. We live with the memories, and know that more will come.

We are tuned in to every aspect of the firefighting life. We know when a brother or sister is lost, and we mourn in our own way, no matter how far away the incident was that took them from us. We don’t have to know the name of the deceased, or their story, because we are the people who make the ultimate sacrifice. Inside every one of us lives a small part of the rest, and we feel the loss more profoundly than people could imagine.

(Photo/City of Olympia)
(Photo/City of Olympia)

The truth is, this is not the easy life that the general public wants to think it is. This is far more than shopping for lunch, parades, Dalmatians, and Fire Prevention Week. This is life, and loss, and tragedy. This is insomnia, and injury, and depression. None of us gets through it unscathed. None of us expect to. Some of us will not get out alive, and we know all too well that the someone could be us.

So we protect the public from whatever misfortune comes their way, and put out their fires, and tend their wounded, and keep them as safe as we can. We pull the dead from the car wrecks, and cover the bodies at fire scenes so the news cameras won‘t bring the horror into the nation‘s living rooms. We protect our people from more than just the physical; we keep them from knowing the truth.

The truth is ugly, and devastating. People will tell us that they can imagine how horrific it was for us, but they will never, in a million years, really imagine the depth of that horror.

They will never have to deal with the guilt — the constant mental playback, wondering if only I were a little bit faster, a little bit better, a little more poised, a little more heroic. They will never feel the profound sadness that we do as a result of seeing too much. They will never breathe in the smell of death as it lingers on the recently deceased, before the undertaker does his work. They will never wonder how they will even make it home, and get on with things after what they’ve witnessed.
They don’t have to know about any of it. We let them imagine how bad it can be, and allow them the luxury of thinking that they have imagined it right. They don’t have to bear the burden of life at its most raw and powerful. They have the luxury of watching the world go by through their screens — screens that don’t scream, screens that don’t burn, or bleed.
We let them think that life is fair, with an occasional aberration. We allow them the luxury of the illusion of safety and fairness as life barrels along. They do not need to know how often things veer out of control. They don’t have to know what we know. We remember how it felt to be innocent. We know exactly how good it feels to not see the brutal realities that linger just out of sight. We don‘t want them to know about any of it.
All we want is to keep the people who depend on us far away from the things we dread … and we want to survive this career with our hope, health and sanity intact.
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A Very Real Fear of the Very Unlikely…..

I know full well that the chances of something horrific happening to my kids is extremely unlikely…..I also still by a Power Ball ticket every now and then – I know I am probably never going to win more than a few dollars. But I know SOMEBODY is going to win big. I also know families are going to lose loved ones tonight…..In both instances, I can’t help but think, “Why not me?”….

Tonight, my daughter is out having the time of her young life at her senior prom. For some reason, the school decided to have this major event at a venue on the opposite side of the city! A good 45 minute drive across two of our major highways! And I am sitting at home fearing the worst.  She is a great kid! Very responsible. Doesn’t play into the drama that most teen-aged girls do. And has equally smart, level-headed friends…I’m not so much worried about her making a bad decision – but I know bad things can happen in the blink of an eye.

You know, living “close to the office”, has some benefits. Short commute. Easy to swing by the house if you forgot something on your way out the door…..Although the neighbors always freak out at least a little when you park an ambulance or a fire truck in front of your house, even though they know what you do….But, in this profession, it also means that every day you drive by reminders of the things that can go wrong so quickly. It doesn’t matter which way I leave the neighborhood, I can tell you a story….Even driving to my mom’s house for dinner, there is a reminder. Although this one is from my high school days….

My class made it through all three years, (back then, high school was just 10th, 11th, and 12th grades), without any tragedy. That ended on our last day of school. Literally, on our very last day of high school…..There was a huge party that Friday night. Everybody was there – truly, I think the entire senior class, and probably most of the other two classes, were there. It was the party of the decade! Then, suddenly, all of the lights went out…

Of course, everyone was sure the “SWAT TEAM” cut the power and was about to “STORM” the house! Everyone ran. My group grabbed the few beers we could get our hands on and disappeared into the neighborhood to wait it out and see what happened. We hid out for quite a while, but when the SWAT Team never showed and the lights never came back on, we left and went looking for another party.

As we left the neighborhood, the main road was closed. Again, speculation that the cops had shut it down and were still getting ready to raid the house. We left via a different neighborhood road and continued the celebration somewhere else.

It wasn’t until the next day that we learned a classmate had been involved in a horrific accident leaving the very same party and was killed just a few blocks away. The vehicle she was riding in, ran a stop sign and hit, of all things, a deputy sheriff’s vehicle. The deputy in the vehicle was left paralyzed. I honestly don’t know if I ever heard about other injuries. Surely, everyone else in her vehicle was injured, but I just don’t know. None of the other passengers were from our school.

I don’t know that I actually knew her. I don’t believe we were friends, but that isn’t to say we weren’t friends. I just don’t think we knew each other. But, I can tell you I know her now, even 30+ years later. And have never forgotten how that tragic night played out.

We drive through that intersection every time we go to my Mom’s house…..

I have no doubt I would have remembered her and the details of that tragic night no matter what. But, the world of EMS being as small as it is, has made it impossible not to think of the events of that night every time my daughter leaves the house.

Roughly five years after that terrible night, I was working for a small private ambulance company that serviced that area. One of my co-workers was a rather twisted and dark individual – by far more so than most of us. Very nice, compassionate, caring guy and a great medic – but just not right.

One day, he showed up to work with several photo albums. Obviously, this was before the time of cell phones, when all pictures were on “film” and had to be “developed and printed”. These photo albums had very graphic pictures from all of his most challenging calls. And yes, you guessed it, this included pictures from the scene of my classmates horrific accident. Thank goodness I didn’t actually know her….

I know he had several pictures from the scene. Mostly just the mangled vehicles. Although I cannot remember any, but one…..of her. I will not ever get that image out of my head. Mostly because that is what I see every time my daughter leaves the driveway…..

I know that the chances are extremely good that she will make it home by morning safe and sound. But I also know that there is a chance she won’t……

So, for now, I’m sitting here waiting….Sipping whiskey – either preparing for the worst day of my life, or celebrating her safe return…..

 

 

April 4, 1999…..20 years ago today….

Of course, on this dark anniversary, I am thinking of the victims and their families. But I’m also thinking of the first responder’s, police officers, and dispatchers who were in the middle of it. I cannot imagine how much they were affected. I was not directly involved and it still had a huge impact on me.

By sheer luck of scheduling, I was off that day. But, had it happened 24 hours earlier, or 24 hours later, I would have been there. The crew that relieved me that morning was one of the first EMS teams to arrive.  Our station is the second closest – and not by much.

I lived close to my station, so when I heard the news early on and realized the scope, the potential number of victims, I knew resources would be short. I called in to our dispatch center to ask if they were looking for additional people to help staff. I was actually just thinking for station coverage, to handle the “normal” calls while the crew were was out working this “incident”.

The dispatcher who answered the phone was frantic. When I asked if they were looking for help, her immediate response was “YES! How fast can you get to the maintenance garage and load a reserve ambulance?”  I learned the next day that one of our dispatchers had a direct, personal connection to the school. I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to share the details here, but it hit very, very close to home for her. I don’t know for sure, but I am almost positive she was the dispatcher I spoke to……

I met another medic at maintenance and got the ambulance ready to go very quickly. When we went “in service” with dispatch, we were told that we were “next up”, but for now we should head for the station and await assignment. We were not brought in to cover the station – we were brought in because they thought they were going to need more ambulances and, if they did, we were next…..

As it turned out, everything was over by that point. Although no one was sure just yet. It took quite a long time for the building to be completely secured. So, we spent several hours sitting at the station waiting. And waiting. Watching the news trying to get any additional info. But details were scarce for a long time….It was excruciating…..We felt completely helpless….

In some ways, it might have been easier to be there. To be doing something. Instead of just sitting and waiting…..and wondering…..

We were finally released and I headed for home – where my new wife of about 6 months met me at the door. She is a teacher in the district and spent the afternoon in “lockdown”, with her students locked in her classroom. She had a TV in the room and when she heard what was happening, immediately turned it on to the local news. The first thing she saw were friends working on the injured. The crew that had relieved me that morning, several she had known for many years and considered close friends, were front and center on both the local and national news reports. Somehow, without having any contact with me all day, she knew I was somehow involved. All I wanted at that point was to know SHE was ok and to hear how her school handled the situation. She just wanted to know I was ok….And of course asked about our friends.

Shift change the next morning was very somber. The report was “clean, full, ready to go”….Nothing more…The voices were quieter. The faces tired and drawn. I felt older and beat up, and I just sat at the station all afternoon….I cannot imagine the thoughts and images running through their minds….

Twenty years later I still have very vivid memories of that day. And, again, I never actually set foot on scene. I cannot imagine how difficult this day is for the folks who were actually in the building, or dealing with the injured and terrified outside the building. Or, worse yet, trying to help parents locate their kids. WOW.

Mostly today, I am thinking of the dispatchers who took the calls. Especially “my” dispatchers – the ones working specifically for my agency. The entire 911 system was completely overloaded. My dispatchers, as well as dispatchers from many other agencies were fielding calls from inside the school – from students and teachers seeking help and a way out. “My” dispatchers, knowing there was a direct connection, maintained the highest level of professionalism while dealing with calls from this incident as well as dealing with their normal call volume. I cannot imagine….Air traffic controllers have NOTHING on this group of amazing people….

On this day, hug your kids extra tight. Thank a teacher for going above and beyond to prepare for what we all hope never happens again. And, if you know a dispatcher, give them a big hug. Let them know that you appreciate what they do, even though you cannot possibly understand….

A note to my kids…..

I am so, so sorry…..

You are not supposed to see your father struggle so much. Your father is supposed to be the pillar of the family. The example of how to persevere through the toughest of times. Not the one to fall apart because of a scene in a TV show or a movie….

I am not supposed to completely fucking lose it because one of your friends does something slightly stupid at your 8th birthday party….

You are not supposed to have to tell me that I cannot watch a TV show or movie because you know my emotions can’t handle it…..

You are not supposed to wonder why I go to the “doctor” (my therapist) every week. And then wonder even more why I don’t go any more when I think I’ve got things under control…….

You are not supposed to notice the evenings when I “need” an extra drink or two…..

I am not supposed to scream at you when you playfully startle me while I’m walking down the hallway….

When you come in to tell me good night, you are not supposed to find me hunched over the bathroom sink trying to decide if I need the “regular” or the “heavy” sleep meds to get me through the night……

I am not supposed to wake you up in the middle of the night because I need to see your eyes and feel your hug after a dream I’ve just had….

Thankfully, you were not old enough to remember some of my worst “episodes” – Like when I paced around the house with you in my arms for the entire night because I KNEW with every fiber of my soul, if I put you down something would happen and I’d never be able to hold you again….

I am so sorry I have not done a better job of setting a good, positive example for you. I have tried….I’ve tried to show you what a good work ethic looks like, but I’m not sure the 5 different jobs I’ve had since you were born really accomplishes that. I do my best to be over-the-top friendly and appreciative to wait staff, cashiers, and strangers in general – no matter how poor the service or how oblivious they are to people around them, and no matter my state of mind. Hopefully this example has been noticed.

You two, my kids, did not deserve to get stuck with a father who has so many issues and struggles so frequently. I truly hope that you both understand how deeply and fully I love you both, despite my emotional baggage. You are both much stronger than I am and I know you will be able to rise above the difficulties I have put on the family and succeed far beyond my greatest expectations.

You are growing up to be amazing people. Thank you for putting up with me…..

It’s been 19 years…..

This year, Christmas Day marked the 19th anniversary of one of, if not THE, most upsetting calls of my career. I am not going to share details. There’s no need or point. It was not a “horrific” call – it was not a car accident or a suicide, or anything like that. But it was inexplicably tragic. One of those that you just can’t make sense out of …..One of those that, if you are religious, makes you wonder how you can possibly maintain your faith.

Maybe part of what bothered me so much is, I was not even working on the ambulance that day. I was driving the engine (Acting Engineer) – a very rare treat and a fantastic Christmas present!

But, when we got on scene, and the true reality set in on everyone there….it quickly became apparent that I had more experience with this type of call than probably everyone else put together. So, I ended up running the call. Or at least guiding the attending paramedic and performing the most difficult physical tasks.

Needless to say, the outcome was not good. Despite our best efforts, and everything running as smoothly as you could possibly hope, we last that battle.

Generally speaking, the timing of the call made it a thousand times worse than it would have been on any other day of the year. That hit me very hard. It was made even worse, though, by the realization that I had run SO many similar calls during my career. Certainly none exactly like this – either in terms of the exact nature or the timing.  But to realize in the middle of this scenario that I had become so proficient in the skills required for this type of call……..I was not working with a bunch of newbies. Of the 5 of us, two had more time on the job than I did and one was not far behind me. But those three together had not performed these skills on this type of patient half as many times as I had…..

I ‘retired’ and worked my last shift just over 7 months later. I would not say that this particular call ended my career. It was one of many that sticks with me to this day. However, sitting on the tail-board of the engine, out in front of the ER while the attending medic finished his report, and thinking about how many times I had written a report very much like this…..It started to sink in – Maybe I had written too many…..Maybe more than my share.

I am actually composing this post very late on Christmas eve, while listening to my kids sleep peacefully down the hall. I am intentionally not posting it until after Christmas…..

Please make sure you hug your kids every single day. And extra tight on Christmas. You just never know…..

Has it really been THAT long since I’ve posted??

I’m so sorry….I cannot believe it has been so long since I have shared my story. Truth is, I’ve been doing pretty darn well.

It has been at least 2 years, maybe 3, since I have seen my therapist. Although, I have been thinking it’s about time for a bit of a tune up. No full-blown anxiety attacks in years, but recently I have had a couple of minor “episodes”. A few things that have felt like minor setbacks. Much as I wish it wasn’t the case, I’m afraid this is very much like maintaining a car – you gotta look under the hood every now and then just to make sure everything is working right…..

When I started this blog, I intended to share my ENTIRE story – the bad, hopefully followed by the good as I worked through things. As I started addressing my issues, writing was very much a compulsion. A huge release. A way to “talk” about what was happening without actually being face to face with anyone. Although I did hope others would benefit from my story, it was mostly just another, healthier, way for me to vent and cope. However, as I made progress and felt more and more “stable”, the urge to write dwindled.

Because of the feedback I received, and the number of people following along, I knew that I needed to continue sharing – especially as things got better. But it is has been hard…..I’ve been in a relatively good place for so long that, frankly, I was afraid to jeopardize it. I didn’t want to force myself to write for fear of taking my thoughts back to the stuff I had, at least to some degree, put behind me. I thought if I tried to share the good stuff, the bad stuff would come back.

Well, based on the handful of things that have come back recently anyway, I realize that sharing good stuff isn’t going to cause these things to come back – they will find their own way if I don’t stay on top of things.

When I started therapy, I don’t even remember how long ago…..8 years? 10? Something like that….I really hoped I could go spend a few hours of my time (and a few hundred dollars…..), and be done with it. My therapist explained over and over, very patiently, that it just doesn’t work that way. It is an ongoing process that never fully ends. Like I said – it’s like a car…..

I don’t think I really wanted to accept that answer…..I guess I still don’t. But I am beginning to see it for myself. And it’s probably time to get back after it. Certainly, things are not nearly as bad as they were when I started. Not even close. I know that I made a tremendous amount of progress. And I think taking a break for a little while was a good thing too. Kind of like half time in a football game – even if you are winning, you need to take a minute, look at what you have accomplished, and figure out how to proceed.

I still have a lot of stories to tell. I started a handful of posts that never got finished. Most of these deal with the rough patches, but I do intend to finish them and share. I also plan to start sharing the good stuff too….I think it is just as important for me to acknowledge the accomplishments as it might be for some of you to see that things do get better…..

Thank you all for your support! And for your patience as I have worked out a game plan for the second half….

Article: I Have Ghosts in My Head

This is a powerful article about the inevitable party question: So, what’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen?

I can’t remember how many times I’ve been in this situation. I’ve been out of the business for quite a while now, so it doesn’t happen much any more, but man…..Always bothered me. My standby answer was: “Depends on your definition of worst.”

That could be followed with: “Do you mean how much blood was spread across the highway? Or how long it took to clean the puke, blood and other bodily fluids out of the back of my ambulance? Or how long it took to get the smell out of my nose? Or do you mean saddest – cuz I’ve got a bunch of those.”

Too many definitions of “worst”. And on the rare occasion when I do share some stories, it’s never even close to the actual worst……

Article: I have ghosts in my head.

“It’s Not Your Fault”….I Lied….

Wow, is this powerful….The video in the link below describes a scenario that probably almost anyone who has spent a few years on an ambulance can understand.

While I don’t remember any specific time I told this type of lie, I am quite certain that I did. How can you not? “It’s not your fault…..” “It’s not as bad as it looks….” And any number of little (or big) white lies we tell to comfort the patient or the family……

And our selves……

Here’s the link to “It’s not your fault”

I do not belive I ever told the lie he describes, although I dealt with at least my share of SIDS. However, I was in a very similar situation – the only difference was that Mom already knew….and lying to her would not have changed anything……

(I have written about the emotions surrounding my experience and how it effected my for years, here, , if you are interested….)

 

 

 

Link: Video Describing PTSD and Treatments

Here is a link to a video describing the symptoms of PTSD. The first half talks about what causes it and some of the symptoms. The rest addresses some treatment options.

It is very basic and simple, but does a great job of hitting the important highlights in a fairly short period of time – a bit over 5 minutes. If you know someone who is dealing with PTSD, but really don’t understand what that means, I think this will be very helpful. But keep in mind, this video will not help you comprehend the intensity and magnitude of the symptoms, or the loss of control that is often felt by someone with PTSD.

It is a great place to start…..

Article: 5 Stresses of Firefighters

Great article…..

http://uniformstories.com/articles/opinion-category/5-stresses-firefighters-deal-with-that-non-firefighters-should-know-about?fb_comment_id=861044530640807_861192523959341

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