By Ray Norton, O2X Instructor & Resilience Specialist / Retired Fire Service Member
How it began
I started my career in 1987 as a Volunteer Firefighter in Tarpon Springs, Florida. I worked more hours as a volunteer than the paid guys worked, and this would be the theme throughout my career. After a year there, I was brought on as a paid Firefighter/EMT, and shortly after I became a certified paramedic.
In 1990, I was hired at Bayfront Medical Center to work in the adult and pediatric emergency room, which was a Level 2 Trauma Center. I really enjoyed the fast pace, and this work helped increase my knowledge and skill base. It was a busy trauma center and Trauma was my passion and became my specialty. Within two years, I was recruited for the flight program and became a flight medic for Bayflite, an aeromedical program that specialized in Trauma. The program ran 97% scene response calls, and most were trauma and pediatric calls. Bayflite-1 was the busiest scene response helicopter in the nation at the time. In my quest for knowledge and experience, I routinely worked in excess of 100 hours a week.
In 1994 I was hired at Pinellas Suncoast Fire and Rescue District. During my 27-year career there, I served as a Firefighter Paramedic, Driver Engineer, and was promoted through the ranks to the position of District Chief. I also served as the department’s training and EMS Chief and assisted with the Operations Chief role. I recently retired on April 17, 2021.
Looking back on my 34 years of service, these are the important take-aways:
Fitness has always been a constant in my life. A career in the fire service can be very physically demanding, and I felt a duty to always maintain a high level of fitness. Injuries are commonplace in the fire service, and years of service takes its toll on your body. I have had several injuries during my career, but my dedication to fitness kept me operational and gave me the ability to complete 34 years of service.
I had two main coping mechanisms for the stressors of my career. One effective mechanism was my dedication to fitness —physical exercise is a great tool to manage stress. My other mechanism was being a workaholic, staying busy, and filling up all of my time. This was not a healthy way to manage stress, but a way to try to avoid it.
My constant drive to improve and be the best I could be consumed me. I worked constantly— I always took overtime at the Fire Department and extra shifts on the helicopter. I took just about every training and educational opportunity that came available in order to constantly improve. I recall one of my busiest weeks, when I worked a total of 144 hours. My life revolved around my career, and everything else took a back seat. At one point, I gave up my outside interests and hobbies, and I became completely immersed in work. Realizing this was not sustainable over the long-haul, I dialed it back and focused on my fitness once again. Once I did that, I realized how out of balance I had become.
I have always been passionate about giving back, mentoring, teaching, etc. I started volunteering for a not for profit my wife co-founded that served combat veterans with PTSD utilizing alternative modalities. Of course, as usual, I dedicated all of my spare time to that cause. I began working with and developing bonds with these veterans, as they shared their struggles with me. The more I worked with them, the more I realized those same struggles in myself. This is where I discovered the concept of self-care. I spent all of those years thinking all the things I saw “never affected me,” but in reality, they did.
I realized I needed to make a change, so I made it a priority to find time for my martial arts practice that I gave up for the demands of my job. I started a regular yoga and meditation practice and began to focus on myself and my mental wellbeing, as well as physical fitness. I really began to notice a shift in myself and the way I reacted to situations. My thoughts were “Where has this been my whole life?” I wish I would have had this knowledge and information during my entire career.
EFFECTS OF HIGH STRESS JOBS:
I have PTSD and consider myself fortunate to have found out early, so I have the ability to mitigate the effects and get help to prevent future problems. As I look back on my career and the group of people I started my career with, I realize this work has taken a toll on all of them. The only ones left from our group are myself and my best friend who I started my career with. The rest have either taken their own lives or ruined their careers with drugs and/or alcohol abuse. My best friend and I are all that’s left from our group. He recently suffered a heart attack on the job, but thankfully recovered and will make his retirement.
I see the effects of this career on many in this profession, and sadly the stigma prevents people from getting help. As first responders, we try to apply a solution to PTSD when it’s a problem, but the focus needs to be on awareness and intervention throughout your career before it becomes a problem. It needs to begin in the academy and continue throughout our careers. It needs to be okay to not always be okay. We can accept that our career is physically demanding, and injury prevention and recovery are part of the equation. It’s time to accept that mental wellness and resiliency are also part of that equation.
I wish I would have had a program like O2X in the beginning of my career, but I now have the opportunity to give back to this career that has given me so much. I want to be there for my fellow first responders to share my experiences and to be available for them when they need a hand or just someone to listen.
I believe it’s time for a culture shift. My 1% change I share with others revolves around the firehouse kitchen table. Go to any firehouse and you will see and hear the same things—great food, camaraderie, and banter. We all love to hear and tell these stories; it’s how the experiences and knowledge are passed down. Everyone likes to share their tales of the big fires and significant incidents, but nobody talks about how those calls affected them. If we don’t talk about this stuff, we are basically teaching a new generation of first responders that the calls don’t or shouldn’t affect us. My challenge to you is to keep sharing those stories, but also share how some of those calls may have affected you and to make it acceptable, and that it’s okay to not always be okay.