We’re All Ok, Until the Day We’re Not

We’re All Ok, Until the Day We’re Not

Twilight’s best intention of bringing a beautiful end to a long day was shattered like glass at the crash scene.  A lone emergency beacon flashed in the mud; its red light incessantly painted the blades of grass red.  Sounds of extrication tools bounced off mangled metal almost drowning out the helicopters landing nearby.  The odor of diesel exhaust and a hot motor brought the only sense of normalcy to an otherwise surreal scene.

Sometimes what flashing lights illuminate become haunting memories; only eased by unpacking those experiences and focusing on the flashing lights, again.  EMDR is an abbreviation I didn’t know existed until 8 months ago when my day finally came.  In truth, the day I realized I wasn’t ok, wasn’t a surprise. There were days before it with plenty of avoided warning signs I wish I wouldn’t have ignored for so long.

21 years responding to emergencies is a long time, especially for a 33 year old.  I wanted nothing more in life than to be a firefighter as a child and once I was old enough to join the fire explorer post, on my 14th birthday, I did.  What I experienced as a teenager and the mentors who guided me, gave me the career and personal boosts I needed to be who I am today.  Simultaneously my exposure to other people’s worst days also began their accumulation.

Traffic collisions are the worst, at least for me and many other first responders I’ve talked to about it. They’re sometimes chaotic, stressful and usually found in unsafe environments.  Add in people trapped, screams, bad weather etc. and you have the perfect recipe for a mental shit sandwich.  As if these experiences aren’t traumatic enough, sometimes they involve our brothers and sisters.  The emotional complexity of an emergency vehicle accident cannot be accurately defined.

On August 21, 2010, I woke up to a duplex fire with reports of people trapped.  A 2nd Alarm was transmitted, heavy smoke and flames were venting on arrival, aggressive fire attack and searches were carried out and to everyone’s relief no victims were found.  A sigh of relief and a deescalating scene gave me the opportunity to chat with a Battalion Chief I’ve known since I was in elementary school.  He’s one of a few firefighters who not only tolerated but encouraged my routine visits to the firehouse as a kid and who I am privileged to work beside today.  Our conversation that dark, early morning was cut short when he was dispatched to another fire across the district.  He never made it there.

My heart skipped a beat when he made the nearly incoherent radio call moments after being T-boned at a high rate of speed by a car that blew through a red light.  As a volunteer fire photographer I was able to jog to my personal truck and drive the longest 5 blocks I’ve ever traveled to get to him.  The Battalion Suburban was crumpled and smoking, lights flashing, fluids leaking, and motor clicking.  He wasn’t ok, far from it, but still had the heart to worry about whoever hit him.  40 yards away a small dark car faced the wrong way on an empty road, the driver unconscious, and the non-English speaking passenger hunched over on the curb with chest pain.

I gave an update to dispatch, ordered more resources and assumed command.  I was alone, perhaps the loneliest I’ve ever been while I answered the chiefs repetitive questions and tried to keep him on the safety of the median.  When the first ambulance arrived I directed them to transport the critical driver of the other car.  It was the correct and logical decision that later came with the emotional guilt of making my friend and Chief wait for the emergency medical care he badly needed.  After what felt like an eternity, command of the scene was taken over by a safety officer, ambulances and engine companies arrived.  I made that gut-wrenching phone call to his sleeping family and went home.

Without much sleep and without any diffusing I scrambled to get into uniform and off to work to start my 24-hour shift in dispatch.  I received one or two texts from guys who asked what happened but no one ever asked me how I was doing.  Being forgotten is something most dispatchers are used to anyway, besides the fire service culture had taught me that being ok wasn’t an option, it was the expectation.

7 more years of occasionally awful 911 calls, witnessing horrible scenes, line of duty deaths and the resurfacing of personal life brokenness; all brought me to sleepless nights from nightmares worse than the events they were spawned from, binge drinking when not on-call and eventually to a panic attack in public.  In the words of Tim McIlrath, “The surface shines while the inside rots.”  It takes courage to call that employee assistance phone number for mental health and my personal experience wasn’t good enough or fast enough for a guy at his breaking point.

Now, back to those flashing lights.  After diligently researching PTSD, first responder trauma etc., I found a local professional who offered Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy.  I very reluctantly gave in to trying it during my first 50-minute session and was amazed how well and how quickly it worked to relieve the disturbance my memories were causing.  I sat comfortably on a couch with tactile vibrators in my hands while I watched a green light bar flash from side to side like a traffic directional bar.  My therapist asked me to recall details about a specific trauma and helped me find the root cause of why it was an issue while most aren’t.  It is undoubtedly effective and the fastest way to start moving on in a healthy way.  I dream of the day when EMDR is provided in house, at every fire department, police department, hospital etc. to keep our careers long.

This week I responded to another emergency vehicle accident, the worst I’ve personally witnessed.  A Water Tender from the firehouse I spent years running out of as a young volunteer firefighter rolled over while responding to a fully involved house fire I was already on scene of.  A Fire Marshal, a volunteer fire photographer and a District Chief found themselves on scene first, updated dispatch, and called for resources coming from miles away.  I can imagine from my previous experience that it may have been the loneliest and most helpless they’ve ever felt while trying to help the two firefighters trapped inside the crushed cab. Despite the overwhelming circumstances of this terrible scene, it could not have been handled any better by all of the personnel on scene.  It was a swift and methodical extrication with skilled emergency medical care overseen by clear command and control.  Despite some similarity between this accident and the one I responded to in 2010 there was one staggering difference.

After both injured Firefighters were airlifted to a level 1 trauma center there was an incident diffusing with all personnel on scene.  It concluded with a member of the peer support team validating that this type of scene might leave people feeling not ok.  He encouraged everyone to talk about it with their peers, avoid alcohol on their upcoming days off and made sure we knew who to call if we need more help.  He also encouraged everyone to check on one another, something that I made sure to do and something I benefitted from after people reached out to me.  Thankfully both injured Firefighters have been released from the hospital and are on the road to recovery.  While that is a huge relief, it doesn’t take away from the emotional trauma experienced in different ways by the responders on scene.

Before the flashing lights have to fire up once again I’ll conclude with this.  With the high odds that someone you know may have arrived at the day they aren’t ok, perhaps without a place to turn to, make sure to ask, “how are you?” It’s a question that has no expiration date and could be just what a hurting person needs to help get them through the day.  If that train has already left the station and you or they are traveling down the tracks in the wrong direction, stop and give those EMDR lights a try.

10 Replies to “We’re All Ok, Until the Day We’re Not”

  1. Eric,
    That took a ton of courage to write. Take care and know that the community is there if you need anything. God be with you.

  2. Sometimes it sneaks up on you and is not the calls or experienced you’d expect that mess is up the most. Thank you for sharing. I love you man and don’t ever stop being awesome.

  3. Very well written, Eric. It’s so good to see the shift towards taking care of ourselves and those besides us. Thank you for stepping up to shed some light. I swear EMDR saved my life, I hope the right people find this article and give it a try also

  4. Thank you. I was at the house fire and then on scene that day. I truly appreciate this article. I’m a new firefighter and that was the first major wreck I’ve ever been on. It is definitely a different experience seeing brothers in bunkers, than just your average accident.

  5. Anyone who has been to any form of emergency scene knows the feelings expressed here. Thanks you for so elequently putting into words the complexity and, yes, the fear of those experiences.

  6. Couldn’t do what you do without years in eyes and fear in my very being. That “what if this is my child, my brother” in that wreck drives us into sites that could easily end up being our own undoing.. Prayers for your safety, always

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