The (Sometimes) Invisible Effects of PTSD
By Scott Ziegler, O2X Instructor
“Box alarm, fire is reported in an occupied dwelling.”
“Companies responding to the box alarm be advised caller states multiple children and adults are trapped inside.”
“Chief 4 requesting an extra engine company.”
“Engine 59 stretching on a dwelling.”
As I type this, I am laying in my bunk, having just returned from this call. I know what you are probably thinking, “Another hero story that sounds like every other hero story out there.” Not so. Not even close. In fact, I’m not even going to talk about this particular incident itself. There is a reason I used it to preface what I actually want to talk to you about though, so hear me out.
For the firefighters and first responders reading, I don’t know what stage of your career you are currently in, but I do know that depending on that stage, your reaction to a box alarm (or job, or structure fire, or whatever your department calls it) might be different than mine. At this point for me, my reaction is far different than it was when I started.
Shit, there was a time that the bell going off would cause me to work myself out of breath before we even got to the fire. That bell seems to get the heart rate up a little less as your career progresses. However, a bell with a dispatch report like the one mentioned above – I don’t care who you are or how long you’ve been on the job, we all react to that the same way.
We are trained for all types of fires and emergency situations, but ones like these are different. You are being told that someone’s life is literally on the brink of its last moments and the only thing that can change that outcome is you and the crew you are with. You also know that the risk you’re about to take could mean that these are the last moments of your life, as well.
Calling it what it is – Traumatic
Traumatic events can be defined as experiences that put either a person or someone close to them at risk of serious harm or death. You are dealing with a traumatic event, and your body is going through a traumatic response. That small moment in time, between your bed and the address you are en route to, you are experiencing trauma. Whether you know it, or not. You haven’t even arrived on scene yet and your body and mind are already experiencing trauma.
For me personally I spent the greater portion of my career believing that none of this affected me. None of this bothered me. I was not part of these statistics. Because in my mind these events were not traumatic. I would venture to say that most of us probably have this same mentality. Especially those of us who are still lucky to have youth on our side. Maybe it came with age, or maybe it came with having children of my own, but along the way I started to see and think about these events a bit differently. I started to realize that they are in fact traumatic. They are, in fact, affecting my mental and physical health.
The Odds are Stacked Against You
Statistically 70% of adults experience ONE traumatic event in their lifetime. 20% of those people will go on to develop some sort of PTSD. From ONE event. Do you think that the odds of you escaping this profession without an ounce of physical or mental health issues are in your favor?
Even if somehow you miraculously never get physically injured, you simply CANNOT escape the damage that these events are doing to you, even if you don’t think they are. Kids trapped in fires, people trapped in cars, shooting victims, drowning victims, dead, dismembered, burned human beings. The list goes on. These are not normal things people see in their day-to-day lives. And you don’t just get to see them, you have to fix them, and then do it all over on your next tour or shift.
PTSD can manifest itself in many forms. The obvious could be depression, anxiety, alcoholism, suicide. The maybe not so obvious forms of PTSD could be cardiac issues, chronic pain, increased blood pressure, fatigue etc. I’d take a torn rotator cuff or a broken arm over that list any day.
I write this with the hopes that someone reading it might realize the true effects this job can have on our mental and physical health, sooner rather than later, and take action in combating it.
It took me a long time to get to a place where I could see it. Just like investing in your retirement, the sooner you get on board with “something needs to be done,” the better off you’ll be in the long run.
If you want to do this job, or one like it, and live a long happy life as well, you’ve got to realize the only way that’s possible is if you put your physical and mental health at the top of your priority list now, before it’s too late. Even if it is just a little bit, even if it is just 1% every day.
That call I prefaced with, well it ended up being a pot burning on the stove, and no one was trapped. Thank God, right? But what will the next one be?