** Potential Trigger Warning**
Anyone in the service for longer a year has a story to share. These are usually quick to come to mind. There are the ones where we all laugh, usually at the expense of fellow First Responders. Or, there are the calls where the scene was a mess and yet no one was hurt. We happily relive, retell, and may even embellish these events.
But, those are not the only calls that stick.
Why we were there was anyone’s guess. But, there we were. And so too were our friends in Police and EMS. The train conductor was also there. I remember reaching for the handle on the small ladder at the side of one of the rail cars, and lifting myself up and over to the other side. Preparing, as best as I knew how (which was not at all), for the scene that I was about to see. Looking down at the ground, as if to prolong the time before I needed to shift my attention to the body; then, I remember stepping over the foot.
The rest of the call was relatively uneventful, as far as scenes are concerned. We spent most of the time doing our best to find humour to take the weight of the scene off each other’s backs. What a weight to lift. We’d laugh, if not from the pressure, than at least by proxy. We were all trying our best. It was early morning, so for many of us the day had just begun. We would be expected to continue to attend to other scenes, calls and duties.
What came next were the sleepless nights. Nightmares, restlessness and some insomnia were secondary to the disturbing thoughts that seemed to come from nowhere. Even as I write this I am seeing the scenes and remembering the feelings. The understanding is there now, but I had no idea what was happening to me during that period. The body and mind were working hard to understand, to make sense, of what I had seen.
The funny thing about the calls that shake us is that they also shape us. At least, it shaped me. There isn’t a day that I cross the railway, or open the door to a frozen world, where I am not reminded of that call. I never cross a railway without that “feeling” coming back, at least in some small way. As I cross the tracks, I look down at the rails almost expecting to see what I saw that day. That “feeling” that we get is not unnoticed by the researchers in the field. There are some well-known psychologists and psychiatrists who now argue that it is not just the mind that remembers, but also the body. This makes the process that more complex and a little more difficult to understand how to overcome it.
There was another person with us that day, too. The conductor. What got me the most was not his calm composition, though it was impressive. What impressed me the most was the process in place following that incident for him. The train would remain where it was until a relief conductor had arrived. Then our friend would be taken home and was given a period of time, paid, off work. Following that, and checking in with a mental health specialist, he would then be able to return to work.
Certainly, these events were not as rare as we would like to think. In the decade I spent serving my community, I had only attended one scene where someone died by train. But, for the conductor, he had already experienced multiple incidents like that.
But, as I reflect I am appalled.
A train company, a company used for hauling and moving product, had a better response plan than the first responders. First Responders who would see more horrific, more emotionally charged, and more intense scenes were left, largely, to themselves to deal with their struggle.
While the winds are certainly changing, it is difficult to feel that change on the working end. The pioneers of Critical Incident response, Mitchell and Everly, have had articles and papers out since the 80s. Their manual, which was the breakthrough text for First Responders and Critical Incident Stress, was released in the 90s! And yet, in 2016, we are still scratching our heads as to why folks are quitting, taking sick leave, and retiring early.
I fought fires the same way in 2006 as I did in 2016. Only during the later years of that short career did we begin to hear of change. Research had been out for years, but something finally had clicked. Understanding that the nature of fires had changed, did little for administrations to commit to a new approach. This resistance that seems to remain in the firefighting world, I think, plays a large part into the integration of appropriate mental health concerns.
I didn’t know what was happening to me back on that cold day. I didn’t know what was happening to me during the following weeks. I was lucky, however, as I was able to talk with someone who understood. But, I now understand how that scene really impacted me and how I took many things with me that will stay with me. That scene stuck. I certainly wasn’t alone there either, but as the “super hero” mentality is still strong in this field, no one said anything.
This is exactly where change can occur. We can continue to stand, chin-up, look around the room and echo, “I’m fine”, like our brothers and sisters before us. You can bury the problem underneath the fear and stigma that a mental health problem is something to be ashamed of, something that shows that you’re flawed. Or, you can stand, chin-up, and do the real “heroic” thing. When a scene is “stuck with you”, name it. It will be to the relief of the few who, like you, are just trying to understand something that they have never experienced before.
Over the years, my experiences have warped and torn my memory, reducing them to postcard-like snapshots. Some of the details are hard to trust, while others have forever etched themselves onto my brain when I recall them. What is important is to try and remember what you are able to learn from each of the calls, not simply remember what you saw. Each incident is a chance to grow not just skilfully, but also psychologically. We are able, and research shows, to experience Post-Traumatic Growth.