The Re-Construction of an Icon in Firefighting

Written By Nick Halmasy

Registered Psychotherapist and Previously Served as a Firefighter/Fire Instructor

Feb 5, 2021

 

There is certain “type” of a firefighter that we have elevated to an ethereal position. Salty, somewhat synonymous with grit, has held a dear place in the hearts of your firefighters’ firefighter, since the profession became a profession. You can shop the look, as they say. Or we can fake it until we make it, which is another adage that can sum up how to start to grow your salt. It gives a sense of direction and a marker towards what greatness is in this career. And, when I was still a probie and then into the infancy of my time in the profession, this icon became a mentor.

I fell pretty short of such aspirations. I found that when I was on scene, other’s incompetence (and my own, to be fair) often led to emotional dysregulation (enter anger) where I was unable to look at situations with indifference. A memorable time was at a structure fire (smoke showing, no flame) my crew was ready to enter, but the hose line was not yet charged. Minutes dragged by in excruciating fashion. And for every minute that I seemed to limp through, my anger revved in disproportionate fashion. Finally, I resulted to shouting and I received the response, appropriately so, “Calm down”.

Not very salty.

In a time when fire is under the microscope for providing appropriate care to its members – it may seem like it’s an inappropriate time to take aim at icons in the service that may not have much impact on the day-to-day. This is where I feel we can do some good work. Having an icon, that espouses not only grit in the face of the work but psychological resilience to the work is a worthwhile investment. And, may give a face, and a direction, to a sometimes otherwise directionless approach to mental wellness.

Before, diving into why this icon should remain, but undergo a philosophical change we have to first dig in more to what “being salty” means in the fire service.

From within, the grit or salt one has can be discerned by the dirt on their helmet, the crackling of their screen, the wear of their gear – and all other “well worn” features that hinder, and expose, the wearer to increase dangers. These are worn like trophies. We can understand the psychology of this through a common sense understanding of experience – the dirtier the boots, the harder the work was done. Of course, we know that all these “trophies” actually endanger the firefighter putting them at an increased risk of harm. So, when obesity and alcoholism is rampant in the service, when we are using our defibs on our own members because they are out of shape and not ready for the work, the very last thing we should focus on is increasing the danger.

Especially, if only for the flash.

 

Firefighters carrying a hose in a smoke area

 

Of course, this doesn’t necessarily stand out as anything initially problematic. This is when overt appearances don’t match the covert psychological experiences. Many firefighters when they come to sit in my chair describe the fear, doubt, and disbelief that their fellow members would understand and be supportive. They see the stoic approach of emotional vacuity, work without feeling, a supported and expected response to the job. This is precisely where the the psychological danger is.

Yet, this acceptance can account for a significant portion of a firefighter’s recovery. In fact, the healing ability of a shift or crew to accept a member who is struggling cannot be overlooked. This is well known by now, if we only look at the acceptance of peer support, we find (at least anecdotally) the evidence that this is so. Even approaches at the very infancy of supporting firefighters (CISM started in the 80’s, after all) was aimed at taking the sister and brotherhood and using it to heal hurting members.

We now know what Salty looks like in the service, what it stands for philosophically and where it is psychologically dangerous.

So, why keep it?

As things in the beginning stages always go, we misunderstand. The job also changes, drastically, from what it once was. Of course, we no longer regularly keep dalmatians and horse driven buggies to take us to the fire – in fact, statistically speaking, we hardly go to fires anymore to begin with. What that means is we are attending other emergencies, and this has led to an increased exposure to traumatic situations. These situations, to be very clear, don’t mean that we will be “traumatized” – this is a very different thing than being exposed to traumatic experiences.

Regardless, we need to shift our icons to meet the current state of the profession. In an ironic turn, having just said all this, we can look to the very distant past to find such support and help. Here’s a hint – we replace “salty” with “stoic”.

Voila.

 

Black and white image of firefighters rescuing people

 

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is the most well researched and utilized therapy in the world. More recent approaches are offsprings from this very approach. Its simple and basic skills and tools can make exceptionally large changes in individuals lives. Yet, the majority of its approaches can be found in dusty old writings, when people like Jesus would have only been stomping in puddles. If we sum up what CBT and Stoicism mean in simple and general terms:

How you view things determines how you’ll react.

If you view people as incompetent (as I did) you will develop anger. Are there other explanations? Of course – the pumper was notorious for not playing nice. It’s possible that the most experienced people were not available, and therefore someone who was simply trying to do the best they could, wasn’t able to get water flowing (a problem when your service is volunteer based – so, a problem that 85 percent of the fire service no doubt faces). That is precisely the problem – how we appraise situations will dictate how we respond.

If we were to re-create our Salty saviour to a Stoic disposition – we could also make it appropriate to learn these necessary skills to help develop resilience in the job.

We have to also dispel myths that Stoic means emotionless – as a clinician, for instance, it would be a pretty career ending move to support something that would do that. Emotional suppression is probably the number one biggest issue with first responders that I see, and this leads to a large array of psychological issues as they try to navigate emotionally charged situations unemotionally. I say to most of my people, “You can’t solve problems of the heart with solutions from the mind.” Stoicism wouldn’t suggest as such.

What it would suggest is analyzing how you are viewing that situation. If I placed myself at the controls of the rig, under pressure, inexperienced, would I magically become efficient at it? Nope – and so, my appraisal that this should have been the case when I was waiting for water is misguided. My anger was inappropriate and not to mention of no help. Practicing seeing situations through different angles allows us to develop “cognitive flexibility” or, more plainly, the ability to recognize that a situation may not be what it seems.

Another Salty turned Stoic approach is the much more difficult process of looking at things that are outside of our control with indifference. I’ve worked with departments who have union members so disillusioned and disconnected from management, for reasons that can make sense, that they are willing to jeopardize and harm themselves and others in an effort to stick it to management. They are using the brother and sisterhood to support or help, they feel, members who need it. Yet, they are blinded to the problems they cause in this wake. In CBT, we would practice separating issues out – not everything is one and the same.

Firefighter in front of a fire truck

 

It is an ongoing struggle to see things that fall outside of my control with indifference. To be clear, this isn’t to say that we don’t care. We say our piece if it needs to be said, but if the decision to make the change is ultimately not ours, then we work to not make it our responsibility anymore. Because taking responsibility for something that is not our responsibility, will always lead us towards stress.

These are just a few of the many tools on offer to us from both antiquity and more modern times. I encourage you to seek more ways to truly embody the stoic approach to life, and firefighting. If practiced, resilience and clarity of mind are often the reward. In the times we are in, both would be welcomed. We ought to resist treating our mental wellness tools like “fad diets” – flashy, cool, and promising large returns on short-term sacrifices. This approach doesn’t work.

Ultimately, your mental wellness depends on being able to establish a “new lifestyle” that prioritizes mental wellness. The Stoics had this in check. They understood that these practices produced benefits, but only in those who continued to practice. Those who understood that this is a lifestyle choice. They, too, understood that there were no quick fixes. Modern CBT understands this as well. The modern CBT clinician will recognize that CBT doesn’t promote a lifestyle shift – it promotes a “suite of tools”. By establishing a cultural icon in the fire service that promotes the “lifestyle” of mental wellness and then point to modern science to show the accuracy in that, we establish an unwavering belief and understanding that this is a worthwhile endeavour. And one that promises longstanding resilience and “salt” in the face of the new traumatic experiences that the “old” firefighting career wasn’t exposed to.

Nick's Photo

About the Author

Nick Halmasy

Registered Psychotherapist and Previously Served as a Firefighter/ Fire Instructor

Nick is a registered psychotherapist, author and research collaborator with FireWell out of McMaster University. Nick served as firefighter/fire instructor for 10 years in the volunteer sector prior to moving into clinical work. Nick writes, speaks, and presents on various topics of mental health and is a critic and contrarian to current approaches in firefighter mental health. He’s also the founder of Afterthecall.org which is dedicated to offering free mental health resources for first responders and their families.
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