Nov. 26, 2014, Port Severn, Ont. - I was watching A Good Job: Stories of the FDNY on TV. Vincent Dunn was talking about when he was promoted to district chief 10 years after 12 FDNY firefighters lost their lives in a building collapse, and he began writing book after book about structural collapse. He told his wife that information just kept pouring out of him, and it became his post-traumatic stress debriefing.
By Jennifer Grigg
It just goes to show you that sooner or later, those traumatic calls catch up with each and every one of us. We may react differently – some may be affected more than others; but if a tough, veteran New York firefighter like Dunn can admit to experiencing stress reactions, we can all learn from that.
Several of the FDNY firefighters discussed how they were affected by a fire in which 87 people died – an intentionally set fire. One firefighter described body after body after body, and explained that he made a point of not looking at their faces, because it was the only way to keep doing what had to be done. Another firefighter said, “You can only talk to your fellow firefighters about it. You can’t bring things like that home to your wife.”
A female firefighter talked about how she had gotten caught in a fire and could feel the flames burning her neck. She had to jump out of a building because the fire escape was burning, and then spent three months in a burn unit recovering. She also experienced severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Amazingly, she was able to return to work eventually.
Steve Buscemi, the actor who was once a FDNY firefighter, interviewed several former fellow firefighters and had them tell their stories. When the attacks occurred on the World Trade Towers, Buscemi returned to his bunker gear to help out at Ground Zero. The firefighters in the documentary shared the struggle of trying to process the loss of 343 firefighters, many who they knew personally. They acknowledged how Sept. 11 changed the way that firefighters deal with loss that they experience on the job; the mindset, they said, has gone from being tough guys who just pushed on through and didn’t talk about their feelings, to a supportive environment in which they are encouraged to talk about what they’re going through and help each other.
Although there can be a heaviness surrounding the profession of fire fighting – PTSD, injuries, fatalities, cancer – there is an equal, if not greater, lightness. The laughter, the friendly banter, the rich history and tradition, the brotherhood. Strong bonds are formed by adversity, and the lighter moments are an important part of maintaining that bond. “My life has taken me to a lot of different places,” Buscemi said. “But I keep coming back. It’s not the fighting fires – I can’t do that anymore. It’s the guys. It’s the family.”
Jennifer Grigg has been a volunteer with the Township of Georgian Bay Fire Department in Ontario since 1997. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter at @georgianbayjen