Hey Chief, Are You OK? ~ Coping with PTSD

by  Deputy Chief Robert R. Devonshire, Jr.
Strasburg Fire Company #1 in Lancaster County, PA

Since October 1985, I have had the privilege of calling myself a firefighter. This has afforded me many opportunities and opened numerous doors because of my involvement in this profession.

Over the years, I have attended many hours of classroom and hands on training as well as accumulating a vast amount of experience. All of which is invaluable when it comes to dealing with the variety of calls we are dispatched to, crashes, fires, haz-mat, medical or other emergencies. We deal with them and make the problem go away. That’s what we do. But no one ever really teaches us about dealing with the mental beatings we take and how to cope with the disturbing things we see.

Bob Devonshire

Waking Up
I never thought I had an issue with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) until I was working with a counselor due to some marital problems. As he was trying to get to know me and learn my background information we discussed in some detail my fire service career. He asked me, with all the stuff I had seen and experienced, if I thought I had an issue with PTSD and I remember saying, “No, I know all about that, I’m ok”. After a few more visits and some poking and prodding by my counselor to get me to discuss a couple of calls that stuck out to me, he asked me to review them with him at one session. That was the event that finally made me realize that something was not right.

His efforts to make me talk about several calls at one sitting resulted in a boiling over of emotions that really made me take stock in what I had been ignoring and covering up for a long time. Upon leaving his office, I started to question what had just happened and if it is possible could I really have PTSD.

I began to research PTSD on the internet, and in particular, Firefighter issues as it relates to PTSD. The more I looked, the more I was seeing signs and symptoms that I knew I was experiencing. At my next visit, I asked if we could talk more about PTSD and determine if it was possible that I may have some issues. Long story short, I was diagnosed with PTSD and have been working hard to deal with my issues ever since.

Putting Up a Wall
Working my way up the chain of command, I found it harder and harder to be able to open up and talk about the calls that hurt the most and their lingering effects. Some memories are over 20 years old but they are every bit as real today as they were day they happened. As I continued moving up through the ranks I found that I had set myself upon a pedestal with a self-imposed feeling of always having to be the strong command presence that never cracks. Not so much as a sign of weakness, but more so to be that point of strength that everyone follows, looking to in order to ensure that they are safe and secure in the tasks you request of them to do at any given emergency scene.

I would never talk about the firehouse at home. My rules were, and for the most part continue to be, “What goes on at the firehouse, stays at the firehouse”. One of my biggest issues is my unwillingness to share with my loved ones the things that I have seen and done in the fire service. I never wanted my family to worry about the things I do when I run out the door to answer an alarm and, to protect them, I chose not to share my experiences. This topic came up in a counseling session a while back and my counselor asked me why I decided my wife and kids were not able to handle this information and why I felt I knew what was better for them then they themselves knew. I could not honestly answer him and to this day I have no worthy answer.

Opening Up
I have shared a few details with my wife since being asked this question. My hurdle now is simply being able to discuss the calls that bother me without having a meltdown. As I open up and share with people, I am slowly becoming more at ease with this process. The memories are still very real to me and can be quite painful to recount, but it is getting better.

I have come to the conclusion, mostly on my own and with the help of a good counselor, that of all of the emergency calls that I struggle with I could not have prevented a single one of them from happening nor could I have ever changed the ultimate outcome of the events. Whatever was done, was done before I got there. I know this, I understand this, and I am working hard to accept this. Nonetheless, there are days that I sink back into a place with the memories I carry that send me into a dark and sometimes foreboding place.

The memories are always going to be there. I cannot erase them or ignore them. What I am learning is how to minimize their impact as a negative event that is still current in my life. The event is in my past and is as much a part of history as the signing of the Declaration of Independence. I know it happened and that it carries significant importance to who I have become. But it is over and done with and is not happening over and over again every time I remember something about a call.

Coping and Healing
Finding a way to minimize the events has been a hard journey. I have found one process in particular to be very helpful. While it may not always work 100% of the time, it does help bring me out of the hole I find myself in when I have a flare up of bad memories. Most of my issues revolve around the deaths of or serious injuries to children. My trigger events tend be connected to things I would hear about on the news or read about in a magazine or newspaper that relate to kids being hurt and killed. I tend to connect the event with my own memories and would start to relive them over and over again.

I am slowly coming to a place where I can cope with an event by using one of the techniques my counselor has taught me. The one that seems to work the best, I call the 3-2-1 technique. The best way for me to explain it is to say that when I find myself stuck in a hole I look around and name 3 things I can see, 3 things I can hear, and 3 things I can touch. Then I name 2 things I can see, 2 things I can hear, and 2 things I can touch. Finally, I name 1 thing I can see, 1 thing I can hear and 1 thing I can touch.

By the time I am done with this simple exercise, I have essentially distracted myself from my problem and thus allowed myself a chance to realize that I am OK, nothing is happening other than a memory being replayed in my mind. I am usually able to quickly regain my composure and get back to normal. This will not fix the problem, but it definitely puts you back in control. It works for me and I would hope this might work for others.

Just because I am a Deputy Fire Chief does not make me exempt me from dealing with the effects of PTSD.

I believe I had placed myself in a position that led me to believe I had to keep things to myself and not show negative emotions which set me up for certain failure. By realizing this, I have allowed myself to begin the healing process. Unfortunately, I have a lot of years of memories to work through but I know I will prevail as long as I keep working at it.
Stay safe, Stay Healthy
Robert R. Devonshire, Jr.

About the Author: Robert R. Devonshire, Jr. is the Deputy Fire Chief of the Strasburg Fire Company #1 in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Robert has written several articles that have appeared in Firehouse and Fire Chief magazine and has presented “Working with your local fire department” at NFMT in Baltimore, Maryland. He is a PTSD survivor with a 27 year career as a volunteer firefighter/EMT. He currently runs the facebook site Firefighter PTSD as Editor in Chief of the site.