When the Stress Bucket Overflows: A Firefighter’s Story of Pain and Healing

By Chief Jared Meeker

                                                Chief Jared Meeker

My fire service story is like so many firefighters, although with a different ending. I grew up in a rural town in Pennsylvania and joined the fire service because that is what my father did. I started as a junior firefighter at 14 and then joined the fire company as soon as I turned 18. Once I finished the state Firefighter 1 program, I was raring to go. At the time, behavioral health was not an issue talked about much in the fire service, and one thing I wasn’t taught in all of my training or early experience in the fire service was how to deal with the emotional impact of the calls we run.

One of my first major incidents happened when I was 19. I responded to a structure fire on the first due engine and was quickly informed that the homeowner had run back inside to get photographs and had not come out. My partner and I took that first line in the front door, and as we made the push to the rear of the structure we found the homeowner on the kitchen floor well beyond help.

The fire chief wanted to shield the exposure of the deceased from the other firefighters on-scene that day, so my partner and I were tasked with assisting the coroner with placing the deceased into the black body bag. It was a lot to ask a 19 year old who didn’t have proper coping mechanisms in place or really know how to deal with the aftermath of the incident. I remember my parents sitting and talking with me in the evenings as I was not hungry enough to eat and was having trouble sleeping. Though you never get that image or smell out of your mind (it’s as if it was just yesterday), over a couple of weeks I was back to normal in terms of my everyday life.

One year later while responding mutual aid to our neighboring fire company, we were tasked with vent/enter/search of a second floor bedroom since the stairs were compromised for reported male trapped. The bedroom was clear, but we found the victim as we worked our way down the hallway to the top of the staircase. Once again, the victim was beyond help. This one was even tougher as the young man was the same age as myself. I faced another long week of interrupted sleep and lack of appetite, but within a couple of weeks was back to normal.

Through my 30 plus years in the fire service I have had to deal with more sadness and death than I ever imagined. I have dealt with many more structure fires, a lot of bad motorcycle and car crashes, and even a helicopter crash. Each incident was a snapshot in time, and for each I used the coping skills and strategies that I learned through my life.

My experience thus far is not uncommon. As firefighters/EMTs, we are exposed to scenes and situations that are beyond the comprehension and coping capabilities of the average person. We see, hear, and smell what no human being should ever have to experience. And as human beings, we all have our breaking points.

While everyone has their own coping mechanisms, most firefighters don’t talk about these situations, especially at home with their families. We want to be seen as their protector, and we don’t want to place our burdens on them. We have this perception that we should just “deal with it” and move on with our lives.

Why do I tell you all of this? To let you know that I am a firefighter just like you, except I have recently lived through a tragic event that over filled my stress bucket and placed me into a state of depression.

You see every one of us has a bucket in our minds that gets filled with stressful moments over time, and they don’t have to be just fire department stressors. They include the day-to-day stressors like work, family, struggling to pay the bills, or that damn car broke down again. Each of us fills this stress bucket over time. There are many responders that have seen a lot, responded to a lot of bad calls, have done compressions on more chests then those that have survived, and yet their bucket will never spill. But for many of us, we reach a point where our stress buckets can no longer hold all that we have experienced, and it will start to overflow.

For me, that day came on December 4, 2016. While driving my fire chief’s truck I was involved in a tragic accident that changed my life forever. A 13-year-old boy, without looking, sprinted across the road to play with his friends on the other side. Unable to stop in time, I struck the boy. Lifesaving actions by myself, the responding firefighters, and the ambulance could not save this boy’s life.

In the following months I fell into a deep state of depression. I barely ate or slept, and when I was able to sleep the nightmares would wake me up. The incident replayed in my head, over and over. It wouldn’t stop, no matter the time of day or night. Now remember, I had dealt with many bad situations in the past, and after a few weeks I was back to some type of a normal.

This one was different. My stress bucket had now flowed over.

For months I didn’t care about myself or those around me. I become extremely irritable and had a hard time concentrating at work (all warning signs for each of you to look for in your fellow firefighters). I was absent from the firehouse and was asking my deputy chief to step up and lead the organization in my place as I knew I could not. Months went by and nothing was making it better. I became socially isolated, avoiding people, events, and fire department responsibilities that could lead me back to that traumatic event. My coping skills became shot, replaced with irritability and withdrawal. I had the best support system in place with my family, friends, and my fellow firefighters, but nothing was making it better.

There are many firefighters out there who have experienced an event that made their stress bucket overflow, but who didn’t know where to turn or felt helpless to change their circumstance. Another story that needs to be told here occurred in October of 2016. Battalion Chief David Dangerfield of Indian River County in Florida wrote a Facebook post that read: “PTSD for Firefighters is real. If your loved one is experiencing signs get them help quickly. 27 years of deaths and babies dying in your hands is a memory that you will never get rid of. It haunted me daily until now. My love to my crews. Be safe, take care. I love you all.” Then David took his own life.

On average there are 80 firefighter line-of-duty deaths (LODD) each year. In comparison, over 100 firefighters commit suicide each year (these numbers don’t make that LODD list), many of them because their stress bucket has filled and has or is ready to overflow. Now everyone’s bucket is a different size, and for some it doesn’t take much to overflow their stress bucket. So we, as the brothers and sisters of this fire service, need to pay attention to the warning signs that one of our own is struggling.

There are many warning signs to look for, but the obvious one is that “something has changed in the person”  ̶  they don’t talk with everyone in the kitchen after a call, they stay to themselves, they don’t seem to converse like they used too, they appear to be in a shell. We need to reach out and help these brother/sister firefighters and EMT’s before it is too late.

My turning point came at the Fire Department Instructors Conference in Indianapolis in April 2017. I attended a few firefighter mental health awareness classes and realized that I needed help. “Time” and my usual coping skills were not going to heal me and the depressive state that I was in.

On that plane ride home I sat beside Tiger Schmittendorf, a well-known speaker on the circuit that I know. After some small talk about his FDIC class he asked me, “Chief, how are you doing.” I knew what he meant  ̶  he had heard about the accident. During that conversation he asked me if I had heard of the Share the Load program and the Fire/EMS Helpline. He explained that it was started by firefighters, for firefighters, to help them deal with the traumatic events and the things that we see and experience. Once home I tried to go back to dealing with this depression myself, but I couldn’t shake it. I was irritable, felt alone, and wasn’t sleeping. As I stood looking in a mirror, I only saw an exhausted, empty person with bloodshot eyes and dark circles. It was then that I realized I needed help to get out of this downward spiral of depression, so I found the number for the Fire/EMS Helpline and called.

Mike Healy was the one that answered this call from his cell phone in Wisconsin. There I was spilling my heart to a stranger many states away, but because of his experiences and training Mike was able to help me tremendously that evening. We left that conversation with Mike doing some research for specialists in my area with EMDR capability. EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing, a technique to help process unresolved traumatic events and transform negative beliefs with simple eye movement.

So yes, I began seeing a therapist and that does not make me weak. See I wanted my life back and I needed professional help to achieve that. There is this perception in our fire service that if we show that these situations bother us that it is a sign of weakness. This perception must change. For anyone says things like “just get over it” or “suck it up snowflake” because you think you are tougher than everyone else, you need to re-think what you are doing to your brother and sister firefighters. We are a family, and we need to be supportive when our brothers and sisters are in need.

We in the emergency services often see ourselves as the ones who always have to “be strong.” It’s often hard to admit that we sometimes need help too. We as leaders in this fire service need to make sure that all first responders realize that it is okay to reach out for help and that they can do so confidentially.

Cumulative stress overload over time and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms are real and found throughout the fire service. Please remember that PTSD is a mental injury and not a mental illness. Simply put, it’s not that the person is refusing to let go of the past, but the past is refusing to let go of that person.

For me, the counseling and EMDR treatment helped immensely. I also appreciate the unwavering support of my family and fire department, who continued to believe in me throughout it all. I won’t lie – it takes time and work to get back close to where you were, but “getting your life back” is worth the effort.

Why do I tell you this story?

One of the things that can help a person with PTSD is what is called Post Traumatic Growth, a positive change experienced as a result of the struggle with a major traumatic event. I don’t want to see firefighters struggling with the things that we see, and I don’t want to see that firefighter suicide statistic increase. I want to take what I have lived and what I have learned to help others in this fire service….my Post Traumatic Growth.

I want those firefighters suffering in silence to know there is hope. For those that know someone suffering from PTSD symptoms or their stress bucket is full to the rim, there is now direction and guidance.

The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation’s Life Safety Initiative #13 states that firefighters and their families must have access to counseling and psychological support. The Volunteer Combination Officers Section (VCOS) of the International Association of Fire Chiefs recently published a Yellow Ribbon Report titled Under The Helmet: Performing An Internal Size-Up, which provides a proactive approach to firefighter mental wellness. The National Volunteer Fire Council has the Share the Load program and partners with American Addiction Centers to provide the Fire/EMS Helpline. The Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance provides workshops to raise awareness regarding firefighter behavioral health and prevent suicide.

The health of our firefighters and EMTs should be the highest priority in the fire service. As leaders, our number one responsibility is to keep our members safe, which includes helping them deal with the effects of emotional trauma. It is up to all of us to watch out for each other and say something if we see something. Now more than ever, it is important that we prioritize taking care of our own members and ensure their mental wellness and emotional health. We cannot let our brothers and sisters continue to suffer from cumulative stress overload that will lead to depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicide. We are not going to stop the trauma that we see, but we as leaders need to put avenues in place for our first responders to get the help that they need.

Mental health issues are real, and no one should feel embarrassed or ashamed to ask for help. This is a concept we need to embrace throughout the fire service culture.  Train your officers and firefighters on what to look for and the avenues that are already in place for those who need help. Just having an EAP program available for your members is not enough.

Remember to look for the warning signs….and reach out and have that conversation. And if you need help, don’t be afraid to ask. We owe it to all the people we love to be the best we can possibly be and to come home at the end of the day. Sometimes we need help to get us back on track. As the saying goes, “To the world you may be just one person – but to one person you might be the world.”

Jared Meeker is a 30+ year fire service veteran currently serving as a fire chief for the Lake Shore Fire Department, a combination fire department in upstate New York. His passion for the fire service includes teaching incident command skills to aspiring fire officers and career survival skills to all first responders. He currently offers a training program on firefighter behavioral health; learn more here: https://seeingincoloragain.wordpress.com/sizing-up-your-behavioral-health/