NOTE: If you haven’t yet purchased your tickets or dinners, do so now. Dinner counts are due this week and then, you’re on your own. https://stachetoberfest.myshopify.com/.
An abnormally beautiful occurrence took place at station five several nights back. The door bell rung after 10pm, the guys came to find a fellow fire brother in obvious distress. He didn’t look good, he looked physically ill. After some questioning, he revealed that he was one of the guys in the Mosquito Fire burn over that had just occurred. I’m sure we will all have the opportunity to review the “lessons learned,” but the long and short of it is, that a strike team from San Diego County folks were caught on a mid-slope road, in timber, and were forced to abandon their rigs and retreat to safety. Luckily, no one was killed. A handful of firefighters received between 1st and 3rd degree burns.
He was rattled. His wife found him outside their house near his gear. Based solely on presentation she asked, “Should I call 911?”
“No!…just take me to station 5, I need to talk to the guys.”
He did. They talked for 90 mins +, he told his story, he told his regrets, he grieved the injuries to his comrades. And…as the minutes passed, he changed. The ill look he had upon arrival receded. His color came back, his posture returned, the valve had been purged. Our protagonist isn’t a young guy, he’s been around the block, his resume is braggable. His response to this circumstance wasn’t chosen. “I was the witness to my own symptoms. Am I having an anxiety attack!?”
But his response is normal. We don’t want it to be normal. We don’t want to appear “weak,” “out of control,” “unstable.” And in the moment, it doesn’t seem ok. “Don’t call 911!!!” I can imagine my own response, my own pride…“I’ll never live this down.” But when we say the account out loud: “I found myself sprinting for my life, wearing single layers in structure fire conditions, amidst 5-acre area ignition occurring on my flank,” reality comes to the surface. It’s as if our present self, in hearing the traumatic circumstances of our recent past self, is permitted to have mercy and compassion on our reality. That’s what expressing these things does. Our stories are important. When the bystander can receive the near-death account and respond with a resounding, “HOLY SHIN*AN@#ANS!” we become validated. “Oh yeah, I guess that really is jacked up!…worth sharing, worth grieving.”
The reason why I love this story so much is because it represents a change in our fire culture, or at least I pray it does. The fact that this guy even considered the reality that talking to “the guys(gals)” would assist in his healing, is HUGE. Branches don’t fare well apart from the vine. I’m also really grateful the crew was equipped. I’m glad they didn’t give a, “that sucks, wanna go to the hospital?” That’s not what he needed. He needed family, a cup of coffee, a set of ears that understands. That’s what we are to each other. There’s a temptation to isolate-always. It’s easier. It doesn’t cost us anything…well, not initially. Connection must be chosen.
We talked about “hooking up the trailer,” in the last post (The phycological concept of attaching to a healthier human in low times). This situation is no different. When our perspective is broken, in this case, beyond choice, physiology, and will power, we gotta hook our load to a bigger truck, one with a working transmission and drivetrain. The load’s heavy either way, but a burned-up rig isn’t the appropriate apparatus in this scenario, a station full of well-fed firemen is perfect though. “Heck yeah brother, we’ll go on drill while you down-load your trauma, no problem!” And that’s how it went down. What a victory!?
Is it like this everywhere, in other vocations? Do accountants lament about their TPS reports by the water cooler? Do they think to themselves, “I just need to vent to someone who understands current tax law and auditing principles?” No, they don’t! That kind of crap doesn’t reach the center of our hearts. Death does. True tragedy does.
If you didn’t accept it already, we’re different. Surprise! If you made it through medic school, fire academy, and probation…you’re different. That’s a good thing. We’re ok with blood, vomit, needles, bones sticking out of skin, danger, and dangerous situations. We might be a little more detached than your average bear. Thank God!
I’m not sure if any of you saw the first documentary on the 12 Taiwanese children and their coach rescued from the flooded cave in 2018? Cave divers sedated these kids, masked them up on compressed air, and then swam them for 3 hours out to safety…under water. We all know the effects of narcotics on the respiratory system. We know the diligence an anesthesiologist takes in keeping the patient breathing during surgery. These divers weren’t trained anesthesiologists, they we divers. They didn’t know if they’d have a living child upon completion of this very difficult swim or not. But they did, all 13 humans! Studs!! There was a quote from one of the divers reflecting on himself after they’d been triumphant. Speaking of his own stoic demeanor, “Was I a bit too cold? Was I bit too unemotional? I found a use and a purpose to that level of detachment…you can use it to do good things.”
We’re a custom build. We’re a base-line model with modifications to handle abnormal situations. But with custom changes comes custom problems. The stats of first responder suicides is unsettling. Even in our own county.
Most of us love our job. We even like most of the changes it’s made in us: We’re situationally aware. We are capable. We can critically think. Don’t easily give up. We’re strong and competitive. All good things.
These traits help us to wade through the sh*t of everyone else’s terrible situations with a smile on our face. We even have to be careful not to laugh or tell jokes at the scene of a tragedy. Seems like a pretty incredible breed.
But, what is our weakness? What is our kryptonite?
“What?! That’s dumb Polito! What are you talking about?!”
Follow me…let me explain. Who’s more guarded than a cop, military personnel or a firefighter? No one. We have extra locks on our doors and we even construct several walls around our hearts, just in case. Gotta keep the bums out. We know the evil out there and we plan for it. That’s what makes us capable of serenely navigating our gondola through the tragedy of everyone else’s trauma…with a smile. But what happens when we get a hole in it? A hole in the boat? What happens when the excrement of this job starts leaking in, onto our feet and legs (gross!)? This job immediately becomes intolerable, for us and our families.
“Welcome home sweety…ummmm…you have poop on your legs.”
That hole in the boat comes from the inside. It comes from who and what we love…our kryptonite. It comes when a marriage starts to crumble or a child gets seriously ill. It comes from a death in the family or an unexpected disability. It comes when money is tight and overtime takes the place of family time. It comes when we miss the big game, the birthday, the anniversary, to greed or mandatories. It comes from within. These spaces are ours. They are within the walls. We are supposed to be in control of them.
When these centers start to crumble we lose our super powers. These are the places we apply most of our energy. Firefighters are great parents. They apply the same tenacity to their kids. What about to their wives? Or husbands, to you lady fire fighters? How’s that arena?
“It’s fine Dominic. My third marriage is going great! Tip top!”
Marriage is hard already without all the circumstances mentioned. Remember “with a custom build comes custom problems?” I remember in both fire academy and medic school; the family was invited to a briefing, explaining the difficulties of supporting the cadet in this process. But what did we get when we got married? Who tipped our spouse off to the idiosyncrasies of shift work? The cortisol rollercoaster? The detachment? Decision fatigue? Moodiness? Sleep issues? Constant exhaustion? Etc.?
Nobody. Who taught you how to maintain a fire marriage? How to communicate? Who taught your spouse how to recognize when you’re off, when you’re “not ok?” Who taught you? Information is power and application of good wisdom = positive change. Which brings me to the recipient of this year’s StachetoberFest (Left turn!).
It’s you. It’s your marriage…or your future marriage if you’re single or “trying again.”
We have churned over this concept for a time and we’re pulling the trigger. The funds of this year’s fest will be providing a one-day marriage retreat for local first responder couples (multiple days available). We’re flying out two renowned speakers: Dr Gilmartin and Dr. Mynda Ohs.
Dr. Gilmartin, author and behavioral scientist, specializing in the effects of cortisol and other hormones associated with shift work. He will win your trust by telling you who you are and then help you steer the ship in the direction everyone needs it to go.
Mynda Ohs, author of “Fully Involved.” Mynda not only counsels fire families, she’s in one. She will portray the effects of this job on a marriage not only clinically, but experientially. She’s got the street cred for you wives out there.
The day retreat will be free. Food provided and depending on funds, babysitting $. Between sessions, couples will peel off together and discuss key topics designed for connection and intimacy. Sorry, no “rent-a-rooms.” The idea is to improve your life by bolstering or repairing the source of life within your own walls. Kryptonite prevention.
Imagine if you knew when your transmission was going to fail. Or when your battery would die, tires pop, head gasket blow? Would you plan your vacations around it? Perform the maintenance prior to the trip?
There is a divorce in the US almost every 36 seconds. About 40%. The stats ring true on my shift in the folks over 30. Average cost of a divorce is $15k per person. Kids of divorced parents are more likely to divorce. No Bueno.
The invite is to receive custom information designed for a custom build.
We try to make a difference every year at this event. The funds alleviate burdens. This year our hope is that they contribute in the saving or strengthening of marriages.
Thanks again for all your generosity every year, you make all this possible. Keep it up.
PS. We can always use help with the event. If you are interested in setup, cleanup, or anything in between, we would be grateful. Send us an email with your cell, subject line, “helpers.” (include email link here) Thanks.