Unintended Consequences

Unintended Consequences

*Image from genewhitehead.com

 

Lately I have seen several notifications of testing and recruitment initiatives for fire departments across the nation that are specifically aimed at veterans of our armed services. While I think this is a great thing on the surface I can’t help but wonder if there won’t be unintended consequences that come along with hiring our vets. Now, before you leave me a nasty comment and unsubscribe from the blog let me explain.

First and foremost you won’t find a bigger supporter of our military men and women than me. My family has a strong history of service in many branches of the U.S. military and I, myself was headed to the Navy before life circumstances changed things. Two buddies and I even showed up at the local Marine Corps recruiting office the morning after Gulf War Part I began (eternal thanks to the Gunnery Sergeant who asked if we really wanted to be Marines or if we were simply signing up because of what had begun the night before and then going on to explain that it would be over before we were out of Boot Camp). I strongly believe every American owes a debt of gratitude to our service members, past and present. It is in that same vein that I like to see these recruitment initiatives targeting retired service members. Anything that can help our men and women who are transitioning back to civilian life find a job, a purpose and income to support themselves and their families is worth backing in my book. However, when we look at military veterans and the fire service there is something that immediately jumps out to me. A parallel that perhaps others aren’t seeing in their exuberance to help out our retired soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines and coasties. That parallel would be suicide.

Just this past week alone (August 24, 2015 – August 30, 2015) 7 firefighters and paramedics committed suicide according to the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance FaceBook page. While I do not have weekly, monthly or yearly breakdowns for military suicides, according to the Military Suicide Report 100,000 military veterans have committed suicide since September 11, 2001. Let that number sink in. 100,000! And that does not include the active duty military members that choose to end their own lives. According to a Department of Defense report cited in the Military Times on suicide rates, the 2013 numbers (most recent cited) were 259 total active duty suicides across all service branches with another 220 in the Reserves and Guard. 479 service members in 2013 alone.

Behavioral health has been a hot topic in the fire service for some time now. Depression, PTSD, anxiety and alcohol and drug (prescription or illegal) dependency are all common problems facing todays fire and EMS professionals. Some of the factors that cause these issues to take hold cannot be avoided. They are hazards of our chosen profession. Just as we cannot pick and choose which calls we will answer because of what we may have to see and deal with, neither can the soldier pick and choose the patrol or mission to go out on. But the commonality between the two is that the experiences, sights, sounds, smells and memories that both firefighter and soldier are exposed to can lead to permanent imprints on each service members life. The risk factors and the resulting effects and coping methods are the same for both public safety employees and service members. The arenas are just different. So why then would we want to recruit our veterans for a job that is going to place the same stresses and risk for mental and emotional damage upon them? For some very good reasons, it turns out.

The fire service is a paramilitary organization with rank structure, designated jobs, a common mission, unit designations and camaraderie. Things that every veteran would recognize and be comfortable in the midst of. The fire service is a stressful environment in which members are expected to perform their jobs well and to complete whatever mission is before them. Again, something any veteran can relate to. Many skills developed in the military are desirable in the fire service as well. From leadership skills, to mechanical skills, to computers and radios, to tactics and strategy a veteran has a unique advantage over many civilian recruits. Besides being a way that the American home front can repay its debt to our soldiers it just makes sense to recruit them. There is a risk, however. In recruiting veterans we have to be aware of the parallels I noted above. Does this mean we should not recruit them? Absolutely not! I completely believe we should. But in so doing I think that fire departments across the nation must be prepared to take a step that until now has never been taken in the hiring process specifically and continue this throughout every members career.

I was once told by a Chief officer that no one in the history of that particular department had ever passed the mandatory psych exam prior to being hired. He went on to say that everyone was “off” in some way and that the psych merely looked for major warning flags that indicated propensity to violence, addiction, theft and other major issues. If some of these red flag issues were identified in an applicants testing they were failed. It makes sense to me, we all have to be a little “off” to voluntarily sign up for some of the things we know we will be getting into as fire and EMS professionals. But now that we are actively recruiting a portion of the population that has already been identified as having some “red flag issues” is merely “bouncing” them from a failed psych test the correct and moral thing to do? I would argue no and this is where I think the American fire service can perhaps have a positive impact on veterans identified as less than optimum employees but human beings nonetheless.

I would propose that fire departments begin to set in place a safety net of sorts for those veterans that do not pass psychiatric exams prior to hiring. Instead of receiving a form letter in the mail or a cold, disembodied voice on the other end of a phone telling them they failed and thus will not be hired, how about a meeting with a mental health professional to discuss the findings of the exam and what steps could be taken, if not already in place, to help this individual out? How about already having resources in place for the vet to take advantage of? Perhaps some vets will already have begun counseling or other forms of treatment on their own. Great! But as we have all seen with the recent VA scandals many simply don’t have access to these needed resources. They are a number in a long line of numbers waiting on bureaucratic red tape and policy. Set up partnerships between these resources and your department to work with both prospective candidates and your existing employees. Can we or should we offer this type of help to every individual who fails a psych? Perhaps the right answer is yes, but how about we start with those who have already proven all they need to prove to any of us?

Hopefully by now you understand that it is not that I don’t wish to see veterans serving along side of us but that I want to ensure that those that do and even those that tried to, have some sort of access to mental health resources. This is a deep subject, with many off-shoot conversations that can be had. It delves into mental health after employees are hired and have been serving. It branches into the understanding and lack thereof of many of todays administrators over the issue of mental health. This one article was not meant to address every issue. But as I saw these recruitment initiatives popping up I couldn’t help but see the potential risk this otherwise awesome opportunity posed to our nation’s warriors. I thought maybe if I was thinking it someone else was too and maybe if I wrote about it someone might see it and decide they could do something to make things better. I know there are a few chief officers who follow me, a couple legal counsels and many firefighters and EMS pros that can have influence in their organization. Maybe no one has thought of this. Maybe you guys can push it forward and have a positive impact.

Until next time,

Stay safe,

Chris

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Watching Out For Each Other

* Image Copyright 2009 Paul Combs, all rights reserved

By now you have probably heard of the terrible news out of Aurora, Colorado from last nights senseless shooting at a midnight screening of the last in the series of the “Batman” trilogy. In case you have not here are some links to the coverage, L.A. Times, ABC News and CNN. My thoughts and prayers are with all those innocent people who were killed and wounded just for trying to go see a movie and have a fun night out as well as their families and friends who will be affected by this event for long after. But my thoughts immediately turned to the firefighters, paramedics and police officers who responded to the scene.

This scene had the potential to be a career altering one to many that were there last night, whether they realized it at the time or not. From the probie or new patrol officer just out of the academy right up to the grizzled veteran with decades of experience anyone could be susceptible to the unusual amount of stress and emotions that they were subject to last night. Especially since, according to reports, there were children involved. The next days, weeks and months will be critical for all involved in this horrific event. The brothers and sisters that work alongside those involved are going to need to be acutely aware of their co-workers behavior, moods and tendencies and not be afraid to speak up if they notice anything that could lead them to believe that anything unhealthy is going on. Anger issues and irritability are the least of the problems that could lead to alcoholism, depression and even suicide. I would hate to think that I sat idly by while I watched a brother or sister spiral down and take their own life while knowing I had a feeling I should say something to him or her, or a supervisor. I wouldn’t want that on my conscience. Bosses, look for it. Union reps, look for it and push the administration to schedule Critical Incident Stress Debriefings if they have not done so already. Everyone needs to be each others keepers.

The incident does not need to be on the size and scope of Aurora to have an effect on someone either. You never know what will get to someone. One that got to me was a fatal involving a child very soon after I found out my wife was pregnant with our first child. I wasn’t even a father yet, but just knowing I was going to be in a relatively short amount of time stirred up emotions in me that I had never experienced responding to a similar scene multiple times before in my career. It took me by surprise and several days to process through what was going on with me and why. A little while ago my friend Lloyd Mitchell, an aspiring firefighter and current photojournalist, shot one of his first homicide scenes. Soon after he polled his network of public safety friends for how we get over bad scenes. I offered my insights as I’m sure numerous others did. While I offered my advice sincerely and with best of intentions, as others surely did, unfortunately I feel that it is a most individual thing. There are tools you can use that many counsellors, psychologists and doctors advocate for dealing with stress issues, but in the end I think it comes down to what healthy method works for you and, unfortunately, exposure to enough of it. After a while that crust does get built-up. But that does’t mean that something, at some time, won’t make it through.

Keep your eyes and ears open for each other brothers and sisters. Don’t be afraid to speak up. I’d rather be called an asshole or be told to mind my own business than look at a widow at a funeral knowing I had “a feeling” and never said anything.

Be safe. Be healthy.

Keep the Aurora and surrounding Brothers and Sisters in your thoughts and prayers.

Chris