This job will kill you...
These words have stuck with me for several hours and now into the next day. They weren’t just any words... they were words that made me think, question, and ultimately write down some thoughts which you are reading.
The words were spoken by one of my chiefs. He went on to say, “It’s not a matter of if, but when this job kills you.” The question at hand was the subject of cancer prevention (he being one who has had cancer), which also led to my interjection of mental health in our career. Both of which are hot topics in the fire service as of now. The thought that this job could kill me was nothing I hadn’t thought about before. But what he tacked on to the end of that statement is what I struggled with. “When this job kills you”... That’s a hard statement to write, much less speak or share with others.
What we face in our field isn’t a mystery to those of us in it. The things we see and experience, the way we treat our bodies (lack of sleep, multiple jobs, etc.), and our sometime incredibly forward thinking of “It won’t happen to me” really puts us in a less than ideal situation. By the way, I’m not planning on giving statistics or a definitive answer. I simply wanted to share something that wrecked my thoughts for a brief period of time. A way of being transparent, because sometimes transparency can mean more than advice. As I was saying, it’s no secret that we could possibly die doing our job. But when I think of death in our field, I think of a line of duty death. I think of the tragedy that strikes us each year across America when one our own dies because of an escalating circumstance that may have been beyond that firefighter’s control. The “risk a lot to save a lot” mentality ultimately bringing a brother or sister to their last heart beat and last breath. But as I get more involved in the fire service, I see that the statement my chief spoke holds validity. We are not invincible outside of the fire ground or the scene of the incident that’s taking place. Nope, we can be taken and led to death by many other things that we face in this career.
This career didn’t promise to spare our life if we trained well, took a plethora of classes, or used a certain type of tool or tactic... and it never will. What we face every time we hop on that rig is unknown. Sure we expose ourselves to more experience, which is incredible and needed. Though while we expose ourselves to more experience, we also expose ourselves to things like trauma, stress, and little floating particles that may, can, and will cause us cancer. Again, no statistics here, just thoughts from a guy sharing his words in the open. And while this does not deter me from the job (nor do I hope that it does anyone), I think it’s important to think about openly.
I also believe wholeheartedly it should be explained to the new guy coming through rookie school. Some may ask “Why?”, and that’s expected. Here’s my answer to their “Why?”... Because if we can explain on the front end the things we know and have learned will happen (i.e. cancer causing agents, mental health issues, and cardiac related deaths), then we can hopefully win more of these battles by preparing those who serve currently and those who are coming behind us. If you ask any firefighter, we are confident in the fact that we don’t know everything that will come our way. But let’s also be confident in the things we do know by being proactive and providing resources to help those currently serving and those who are coming behind us. Information and honesty shouldn’t scare people away. It should make them more confident that when something does come their way, they were prepared properly for what lies ahead. It also helps them to realize that they don’t have to re-discover something we already know. Resources are crucial and information is imperative. It’s no different than a call we are running. The more information we have, the better we are able to prepare. When we have information, we can potentially provide the proper resources. When we have the proper resources, we can attack and solve the task a majority of the time. Let’s do the same for ourselves and those coming after us. We need to prepare them for what we know is a possibility. We prepare them by putting operational guidelines in place and making resources available to them that don’t come off as odd or making them appear weak. We are the only ones who can fix these “preventable” problems we are facing in the fire service. And I use the term preventable loosely, knowing that we can’t prevent everything.
What I have learned is that words have a way of piercing straight through you. They allow you to think and many times they have a great way of bringing you to action. So what do these words “this job will kill you” do to you? I know for certain they have solidified my mission and purpose behind Next Rung, which is to provide resources to combat mental health issues in First Responders. Will these same words prompt you to a different approach or solidify your current actions?