Last year at this time, Matt Olson and Colleen Murphy presented the Spousal/Significant Other Introduction to Firefighter Behavioral Health at the Alsip Fire Department. This event was attended by approximately 25 couples either married, engaged, or dating. I received nothing but good feedback from all who attended. Matt and Colleen did an excellent job sharing their experiences from both the firefighter, and firefighter’s spouse perspectives. I highly encourage any department who has not hosted this presentation to do so by contacting either Colleen or Matt. It was during this informative session that I heard something that has stuck with me and heightened my situational awareness as both a firefighter and peer support team member.
At one point during the conversation, Colleen enlightened us with some very sage advice about how we interact or communicate with each other as firefighters. She reminded us that we have a tendency of “jagging” each other with respect to how we react to a call or series of calls. For example, a brother or sister firefighter may become very emotional about a call that did not affect everyone else who responded to this same incident. She further related that we might say things to this person such as: “suck it up and move on”, or “You’ve got a long way to go in your career so you better get used to it”. It was at this time that Colleen shared her words of wisdom and advice.
To paraphrase Mrs. Murphy, she said: “When dealing with your peers who are emotional, you have to be very careful about what you say or how you handle the situation, because each person brings a history with them (before they were in the fire service) to the fire service.” So what was Colleen trying to tell us? Let’s say that your crew responded to a call involving domestic violence and one of the team members became enraged to the point that he lunged forward at the offender shouting every explicative known to mankind. The call was carried to its conclusion, but left all involved wondering what the hell happened with FF/PM “Jones”, and asking why he was such an a*****e on that emergency scene. Later on, Jones opened up to his crew mates that he grew up in a household where domestic violence was the norm rather than the exception to his childhood. Jones had been a member of the department for over 10 years and never, ever, shared this history with his peers.
How often have we experienced such an event in our careers where we thought we knew everything there was to know about a peer, only to find out that he/she was carrying a dark secret that causes him/her mental, emotional, physical, or spiritual distress. I learned a very valuable lesson that day and as a result have adopted this practice: Anytime that I see a comrade acting out of sorts, I am going to make it a point to initiate an honest and frank conversation with the hope that a meaningful dialogue will ensue. Just when think you have seen it all- Always remember the history of us. Thanks, Colleen. Until next time-
Be well and stay safe,