I've been watching the fires out West this last month and enjoying fond memories of fighting wildland fires in Oregon. Every time I read the news I just want to hop on a plane (from South Carolina) and head back to the fire lines. It's been quite a few years since I've dug hot line (though I'm still qualified). Now something in me wants to get back into the fight. Then again, there are some things that I do not miss. I think anyone who has fought wildland fires for any amount of time could relate.
I’m praying for today’s wildland firefighters. Keep up the good work. You've got a tough, but wonderful, job.
Chaplain Chris Wade
Ok, guilty as charged. I've passed on my share of gallows humor. Having worked in the police and fire service for 16 years I have had my share of bizarre days/nights and calls. I mean, what do you say about the guy who calls 911 for an ambulance at 3:30 in the morning for a toothache? Or, what can you say about the guy who drives away from the hit and run and leaves his license plate at the scene of the crime? Or worse yet, what about the guy who tries to shoot himself in the head….but misses?
Black humor, or better known as gallows humor, seems to be standard practice to those of us who work as first responders. According to Dartmouth Medicine Magazine a survey of EMT/paramedics found that 90% admitted to using gallows humor. Gallows humor is a witticism in the face of death, destruction or other perceived major stressor of life. And as anyone who has been in emergency services knows, most of the calls to 911 for service are an emergency for the caller, no matter how asinine we know they are. And our humor in the face of horror/emergency helps us put these events into perspective.
As first responders we not only see the horror of life first hand, but we also see the absurdity of what some people do with their life. In this our empathy is stretched to the limits. It is commonly taught by senior members to newbies that what we say among ourselves in the rig or back at the firehouse should never be told to the patient, family members or bystanders. But in our mishandling of our words there have been many a first responder who has lost their job and loved career because they said the wrong thing in front of the wrong person.
But as a chaplain I have been wondering if gallows humor is even right for me. In the fire service gallows humor among the staff tends to build a bond among the responders. A bond that is also needed as an effective chaplain. One that says that I am allowed to be one of the gang. Gallows humor is also used by first responders as a psychological pressure relief valve or way to handle the stress of the job that is increasingly more difficult as our society grows. And it gives us a sense of power to an otherwise powerless situation. And as a chaplain who sees the horror of life, sometimes that pressure relief valve can be mighty welcoming.
But let's be real about it. Gallows humor is judgmental, demeaning, dehumanizes, belittles and objectifies people already in vulnerable positions and situations. And if I am a man of integrity, shouldn't what I say in front of my fire guys be the exact same thing I can say in front of the patients and their families…and my God? Shouldn't I be the caring person, no matter how stupid I see the call?
What we are talking about, ultimately, is how we handle stress. I mean, if we didn't handle the stress of this job, we would all have very short careers or wind up the psychiatric wing of the hospital. If we don't find a way to cope with all the vicarious traumatization that we experience then it would stay bottled up in us until it comes out inappropriately. It seems that one of the more common ways of handling the stress is through sharing gallows humor.
Now, remember, as I write this the only one I can really point my finger at is me. I know that in my weakness (lack of sleep) more people look like idiots and are prone to my gallows humor. I also know that gallows humor is here to stay in the fire service. In fact, I know that if I tried to squelch it among my fire guys I would probably come across as a prude and that would be the end of my connection with my firefighters. But how far can and should I go as a chaplain?
It is said that the opposite of judgement is compassion. In the gospels we see that Jesus expressed compassion for those who were sick and hurting or were without a leader. In this we never saw Him mock the crowds, but instead have great compassion on them. Now, I realize that humor must be part of every believers life. But humor at the expense of those to whom we minister just doesn't seem right. It doesn't show integrity.
But what do we do with the stress of the call? Jesus found time to get away and spend it in prayer talking with Father God. While this may not always be an option for hurried first responders I believe it is a model to shoot for. The stresses of this job will tend to suck the life out of you. But as a chaplain I know that I must follow and demonstrate a different model for stress relief. So, how am I going to handle it when those around me start talking in gallows humor? Well, I hope I will give them all the same grace I need.
It’s natural for people try to keep an emotional distance between them and the bad things in life, but as a Fire Chaplain I’ve seen some pretty awful things first-hand. I have been present with families at the worst time of their lives. Countless times I have given family members notice that their loved one has died, and sometimes died in the most horrific way. So, when I was working for a local fire department I would regularly get asked about this part of my job as the department chaplain: “How can you do what you do?”
The simple answer is, “That is where I see God.” I see God meeting people in the death/grief process, so that is where I go. Let me explain.
It’s a holy moment.
In the moment of life/death I see the one who has created us all. Life and death are truly in His hands. What a person has done with the life that God has given them between their first and last breaths and how they got to this point is something I may not see, but I see this holy moment where they meet their Creator. This is a time that God has especially for each of us, His creation, and it is sacred and holy.
It’s a time of grief.
For the family, this is usually a time of intense grief. They have lost their loved one. I have found that everyone handles this time a little differently, but most would agree that they would rather have their loved one back. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Jesus, the one who knew the greatest grief, says that He meets people in their deepest grief and walks with them. In Psalm 23 God says He is with us while we walk through the valley. It is my privilege as a chaplain to affirm (verbally or by my presence) that God cares for and is with those who grieve.
It’s a time for life.
Luckily, though, grief is not the end of the story. As a crisis response chaplain, I don’t usually get to walk through the entire grief process. But I do get to plant that seed of life, life seen not only in the power of the resurrection but also in the power of the Holy Spirit to bring hope and life to our life here on earth. Death is not the end. Life will go on. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, the believer finds hope and ultimately resiliency.
This last week I went to another funeral for a firefighter brother. Since I just started with my new fire service appointment I didn't know him personally, but that didn't really matter. I have found that this brotherhood extends beyond the bounds of actually meeting someone. I was there to honor my brother and to support those who have been left behind. While I have been to a number of funerals and it always impresses me the depth of the brotherhood of the fire family.
As I was researching this blog post I found a number of articles on the demise of the brotherhood of fire and it disturbed me. Are we really losing the brotherhood? Is the bond that is forged by this profession becoming weak with this new generation of firefighters? I would hope not.
The brotherhood of the fire service spans geography, social, ethnic and religious bounds. It goes beyond pay or volunteer and luckily it goes beyond political ideology. This brotherhood is literally tested in fire. This video from the South Carolina State Firefighters Association tells story that the brotherhood spans even battle lines.
Even though we have differences, like those firefighters on different sides of the war, we are brothers and sisters. Our service is to our fellow citizen and to each other. It still means something when you see that maltase cross in the back window of the car in front of you. You automatically know something special about that person.
As fire chaplains, we are also a part of this deep tradition and brotherhood. In a lot of cases the chaplain doesn't carry the hoses or drive the apparatus. The chaplain isn't usually an EMT or a fire officer, though sometimes we are. No, a chaplain deals with the issues that injure the heart and soul of firefighters and the people of the community we serve. These are the wounds that usually take a long time to heal…if they heal at all. We are a reminder to all that God is here and that he cares.
So, here's to you my fellow chaplains. Thank you for keeping your firefighters in your prayers. Thank you for walking with them when they struggle and for celebrating the culture of the fire service. And thank you for being part of the brotherhood.
How long must we in emergency services ignore the mounting evidence that the lack of good sleep is killing us? The fire service tends to learn from its mistakes. Unfortunately, these mistakes can kill people.
It was mid-morning and we were on another medical call when the ambulance pulled up. In the front seat sat a good friend who was “teching” the call (serving as the medical technician). I thought I had seen him just the day before working on the box (staffing the ambulance). Two days in a row? He told me that he was on the last leg of a 72-hour shift. My friend looked very tired. While I know he was incredibly competent as a medic, the first thing that ran through my mind was I didn’t want him working on this patient, let alone driving an ambulance.
This is not a new problem with the Fire/EMS service. We have pushed or allowed our crews to work dangerously long hours, with the hopes that they will be able to do their job competently and then get the rest they need to be fresh when they are due back for their next shift. But with poor pay (or no pay for our large volunteer force) many firefighters work another job just to make ends meet; they get off a long shift, then go to their other job. They are sacrificing sleep for the service that they love. Are we in the fire service gambling with their lives and the lives of the public?
Effects of Sleep Deprivation
Unfortunately it is no longer new news that staying up long hours has a dramatic effect upon one’s abilities. In a 2000 NIH study it had been shown that just staying awake 17-19 hours has the same effect as having a .05 blood alcohol content, while staying up 24 hours has the same effect has having a .1 blood alcohol content. And all of this sleep deprivation is cumulative, only getting worse as the week goes on. Who knew what the impairment of my friend was after coming to the end of a 72-hour shift. Combine that with the fact that almost 40 percent of us in the fire service have a diagnosable sleep problem and don’t get good enough sleep even when we are actually in bed eight hours a night.
In his 1998 article Sleep, Memory, PTSD and EMDR, Robert Stickgold made the link between REM sleep and its effects on PTSD. Is it any wonder that with the stress of the job that studies have shown that upwards of 37 percent of firefighters have some level of PTSD? Not to mention that the number-one killer of firefighters (heart disease) can be directly linked to poor sleep, not to mention obesity and type-two diabetes.
What Can Be Done?
In his 2009 article Sleep Deprivation: What Does It Mean for Public Safety Officers? Bryan Vila gives us nine ideas that can be carried over to the fire service:
The Gift of Sleep
As a chaplain, I look at the sleep issue not only from the physiological/psychological side but also from the spiritual. In the book of Psalms God gives us a gentle rebuke and a reminder that sleep as a gift from Him:
Psalm 127:2 (MSG) It’s useless to rise early and go to bed late, and work your worried fingers to the bone. Don’t you know he enjoys giving rest to those he loves?
In our world whose mantra is “You can sleep when you’re dead!” we forget that sleep is a gift from our Creator. It would seem that God declares that not only we need sleep, but somehow it is a good gift. It would seem that God knows something good here and wants to share it with us.
While I fully understand the nature of our business, that it calls us to make sacrifices, and that sleep is sometime a luxury, we must be that much more intent to get our proper sleep. It is said that firefighters are industrial or occupational athletes, and as such we should work out multiple times a week and watch our diets. Maybe we should add one more thing to our daily workout: a good night’s sleep.
About the Author
Chris Wade is a chaplain for Providence Hospital in Columbia, South Carolina and is the State Fire Chaplain for the Division of Fire and Life Safety. He has served as a fire chaplain and EMT with the Santa Clara Fire District in Eugene, Oregon as well as a police officer with the Lane County Sheriff and the Hawaii County Police and an EMT in Charlotte, NC