by Ian Shiel
Editor’s Note: On June 30, 2013, nineteen members of the Prescott Fire Department’s Granite Mountain Hotshots were killed while fighting the Yarnell Hill fire, northwest of Phoenix.
I believe that the fire fighters who survived the fire (Yarnell Hill, AZ), particularly if they witnessed the deaths or where close to the area where the death occurred, plus the surviving family members, are at extreme risk of PTSD. If they are both, the risk is even greater. This sounds obvious, but we know that the results can be fatal, as the only way to turn off the after shocks is to stop living, and therefore stop thinking. It is easy to bandage a burn or put a broken leg in plaster to help the body heal, but we need to think of PTSD as a broken mind and we need a crutch to help support the injury until the mind has time to heal, like meditation has done for me. Sometimes, there will be an emotional limp for many years or the injury may never heal 100%.
As fire fighters, we are all aware that we have a high risk of injury or death each time we step onto the fire ground. Most of us don’t contemplate the reality or we would not take that first step, but we are aware of it. However, we don’t consider the emotional damage that can be done in very high stress events. What I have learned is the “stress steps” are easy to go up but it’s much harder to come down. We have a term for it “calm down” which again is easy to say to someone else but hard to do if it’s you that needs to calm down. We are seldom taught this and luckily rarely find ourselves in a situation where we really need it. We do not understand how powerful or dangerous the stress is when we are on the very high steps and looking up at even more stress steps above us.
There is unlikely that there will be a sign leading to the down steps. We would most likely miss it even if the sign was right in front of us. I don’t feel that it is the right strategy to wait until someone notices the down sign that leads to the first down step, which is most likely contacting a Help Line or a friend.
It is far better to assume that everyone has traumatic stress overload (TSO) from a catastrophic event and that everyone will need help to “calm down” or they may suffer from PTSD.
This is not as easy as it sounds. In the first hours after the event, everyone including firefighters and their families should get assistance to “de-stress” (unwind). It can be as simple as deep breathing for a few minutes over the first few hours and doing this each time an “after shock” hits. Make sure that anyone get enough sleep.
I believe that a very high stress event in the human mind is very similar to an earthquake; both come from a buildup of stresses and both have many aftershock. If we prepare for the first catastrophic event and not the aftershocks then we are under prepared. I have found that many of us don’t even prepare for the first catastrophic mind quake This is sometimes referred to as a “break down” or that they have “cracked.” They still have to work out the stress after the event is over .
I have also found that guilt is a large part of the post-catastrophic event emotional state.I have worked hard and am still working on finding ways to relieve my guilt. Blame and shame are used to inflict guilt on others by the media or others who have been emotionally hurt by the event. It is hard to blame the fire or the weather, it is far easier to blame others and then put them through the pain. I believe this is a way of shedding some of the energy of the catastrophic event. Addressing the damage that has been done, and trying to find ways to prevent the injuries is a far better way to release the energy. This is called “crusading.” I believe that most safety equipment such as safety belts and air bags in cars were developed by someone who had or still has PTSD from a TSO event in a car crash.
One of my crusades is to minimize the damage and prevent deaths from the TSO events and to help people understand what they are going through.
My emotions are with the partners and children of the fallen. Please keep in mind that we, as emergency responders, will always need to take risks and stand up to catastrophic danger . Some will not make it through, but as a race we are good at it. If we did not do so, we would still be in a cave fearing to come out.
About the Author: Ian Shiel has been with the Australian Country Fire Authority for fifteen years, five as a brigade training manager. As a firefighter, Ian responded with his brigade to the Australian Firestorm of 2009. He spent four hours fighting the firestorm and an additional eight hours fighting a large spot fire that threatened his town on that day. He worked the following three days responding to break away fires from the main fire before he was “assisted to stand down” by police officers resulting in a PTSD injury. Since the firestorm, he has had ongoing treatment for the PTSD. Ian is also a colon cancer survivor. You may contact him through his email firstname.lastname@example.org