Tag: fire

15 Days on the North Bay fires

I’m still decompressing from the North Bay fires, but here are some thoughts on the experience.

  • I’m grateful for CAL FIRE’s trust. It is a privilege to work with its Employee Support Services team and CISM leads. They are devoted, compassionate, hard-working people, without exception.
  • If there was a big story coming out of our deployment, it was the dogs. Two years ago, chaplains brought their personal PTSD service dogs to the Rocky and Valley fires (also in the North Bay). We saw what a great comfort and ice-breaker they can be. So this time, we invited just about every trained service, therapy or comfort dog we knew about. The result
    Hope AACR dogs outside breakfast in fire camp.

    Hope AACR dogs outside breakfast in fire camp.

    was that we had dogs present in base camp (which peaked at about 6,000 people) every day. We even took the most highly trained dogs, from Hope AACR, whose handlers were former first responders, out to public safety agencies and neighborhoods that burned. We also had a great response from PALS and others whose names I don’t have. The dogs helped people relax and sometimes seemed to be the key to lowering anxiety about telling their painful stories. As a result, all of us are thinking about how to integrate dogs – and their handlers, of course – into our responses (large or small).

  • Hearing “thank you” from people who lost their homes and entire neighborhoods, was often difficult. For a few days, a crowd of up to 200 people with signs and
    Tree snapped off in Coffey Park.

    Coffey Park – tree snapped off.

    noisemakers stood on the corner by the fire camp at the county fairgrounds, cheering and waving at every fire vehicle that came or left. It was so overwhelming sometimes that I could not even look at them. I think the gratitude is hard because people in public safety tend to be perfectionists – it makes us good at the work – so we focus on what we did not accomplish.  I found myself repeatedly urging firefighters, EMTs and others to “let it be both” – sadness at the tremendous losses, but pride in what was accomplished. My most difficult thank-you came from a little girl in Coffey Park, perhaps six years old. I gave her a CAL FIRE badge sticker and she looked me in the eye, saying, “Thank you for saving our houses and lives.” I had to turn around, take about 15 steps breathing deeply, before I could turn back, smile and say, “You’re welcome.” I really just wanted to go somewhere and cry. They deserve our tears.

    Coffey Park – note aluminum from a structure caught high in tree.

  • I communicated back and forth with Angela Leath, who heads peer support for the Las Vegas Fire Department. She is dealing with the aftermath of their horrendous shooting incident, so we traded ideas – what’s working, what’s not – about responding to a large incident. Our conversation helped me remember that we can expect many people too struggle with feelings of guilt – that they didn’t do enough, that they made wrong decisions, that they were not there. We know we can’t save every house and every life, but part of us – a good part – will always whisper that we should have.
  • Exercise really helps, even when you are worn out. Eight or nine days into our deployment, I decided that the best thing I could do for myself would be the kind of hiking I ordinarily do every two or three days – three miles, with at least 25 lbs in my pack, at a fast pace (this keeps me in shape for firefighting and has done wonders for my health). Afterwards, I felt almost normal again. It was as if I’d punched a “reset” button in my body and brain.
  • It was an incredible privilege to help distribute cash gift cards from the California Professional Firefighters’ foundation. We could give them to anyone who lost at least 25 percent of their home. Although a  few people accepted them matter-of-factly, most seemed stunned when I explained what was in the envelope. Many big hugs resulted. Thousands of them have been given to fire victims in the North Bay.
  • It seemed as though nearly everybody wanted to tell us their stories. That’s unprecedented, in my experience. Almost everybody – firefighters on the line, doing damage inspection, mopping up, in overhead management – stopped for a while to talk about how they were doing (especially when we had dogs!). That speaks both to the magnitude of the fires and the changing public safety culture. It is becoming okay to acknowledge how difficult this work can be.
  • After doing and teaching this kind of work – crisis intervention and peer support – for more than a dozen years, I usually have some kind and gentle words for any situation. But three times in Coffey Park, I met firefighters who lost their own or family homes. For them, I had no words, just a lot of eye contact and big hugs. And that’s okay – if there is any time no words are needed, that’s it.
  • We will be talking about, and healing from these fires for a long time. Until last month, the “career fire” for most people was the Valley fire in 2015. More than once, our team and others mentioned that we are still dealing with it. This year’s fires killed many more people and destroyed more than three times as many homes. And more than once, I heard someone ask the rhetorical – and scary – question, “Is this the new normal?”
  • Something to be grateful for – because the fire happened at night, when people are home, most of their pets survived. That’s really good.

The danger of “nobody else can understand”

If you are in public safety or the military, as well as some other fields, you know that some people insist that there it is pointless to talk about work to any “outsider.” Often, big agencies have this attitude toward smaller, less busy, ones –  “We are the only REAL firefighters, police, medics, etc., around here.” So they close themselves off from  support by people who otherwise might be peers.

The walls even go up within agencies – specialized, elite teams form a “tribe” mentality that says if you haven’t been part of a similar unit, there’s no point in talking to you about stresses and challenges, even if do the same kind of job.

No doubt, there is some truth to this. Working at a big, busy, urban agency certainly is different from smaller ones. Combat experience absolutely has unique aspects. Being part of an elite or specialized team really is different. People who haven’t walked the walk truly cannot understand. Experience is the only instructor – words quickly fail if we were to try to fully communicate it, especially the emotions around high-stress events (which can directly impact the brain’s speech center).

For a number of years, I have suspected that organizational isolation – that’s this is about – could be as toxic as individual isolation. We know that social support is the most important factor in resilience under stress or recovery from trauma; isolation aggravates stress. In fact, almost any trauma expert will agree that people will continue to suffer as long as they remain isolated –  connections with others give us strength and healing.

I recently began reading Ellen Kirschman’s book, I Love a Fire Fighter: What the Family Needs to Know, which has been sitting on my nightstand for a while. Dr. Kirschman, a well-regarded therapist in public safety, is also regularly involved in the West Coast Post-Trauma Retreat, where I have volunteered and learned.

Here’s the light bulb that went off as I read Kirshman’s introduction – the “nobody else can understand” attitude cuts us off from our friends and family. If you are certain that even a co-worker who isn’t part of your elite unit can’t support you because “they don’t understand,” then how can your friends and family who are civilians, possibly support you?

Here’s one of Kirschman’s observations about going through a fire academy (emphasis mine).

No one acknowledged how the emotional courage fire fighter families need or the independence that is forced on them contributes to the fire service mission. This is extremely puzzling in light of the many studies that confirm how family and friends are the heart of a fire fighter’s emotional support system.

Her books (she wrote a similar one for law enforcement) are for families, but the message to public safety is just as important. Your social support outside of work is also critical to your strength and resilience in the face of occupational stresses, and recovery from critical incidents and other injuries that aren’t physical.

The following words are why it does not matter that outsiders can’t understand the job.

Empathy does not require understanding.

It’s true – if you are an outsider, you will not understand. If you’ve never been there, I can’t explain what it was like to talk to a patient one minute and then do CPR on him, unsuccessfully, the next. You won’t understand how difficult it was to walk past his wife in the ER waiting room, seeing her comforting another wife, not knowing her own husband was just pronounced dead. If you’ve never done anything like helping a family bury their dogs who couldn’t escape a wildfire, nothing I can say will make you understand. If you haven’t been part of a rescue that went all wrong and killed the victim, I don’t have words for the emotions. If you haven’t done shift work, you don’t know the toll it can take.

Even if you cannot understand, that doesn’t have to stop you from supporting a responder if you are a trusted friend – because empathy does not require understanding. They may spare you details. They probably won’t repeat the sick jokes that helps many get through the day. But if you are willing to simply walk beside them, your presence can be healing.

You don’t need to understand responder experiences to know that they are painful. You don’t have to work shifts to that it is hard to be exhausted and miss family events. Everyone has experienced pain and frustration, he stress of an event or life going out of control. Co-workers can appreciate it more than outsiders, so co-workers are an essential part of any responder’s network of social support. So are spouses, friends with completely different careers, pastors and may others.

Camaraderie is powerful. Every agency – and groups within them – benefits from friendships, mutual support and teamwork. However, the idea that only our co-workers or people like them can support us is a misguided obstacle to wellness. We should not want anyone, from new recruits to  seasoned veterans, to believe that their friends and family have little to contribute. As Ellen Kirschman says, that idea cuts t them off from the heart of their social support system.