The majority of my work does not happen at the scene of a disaster. I am most in demand back at the station.
Critical Incident Stress is an occupational hazard; aggression and irritability frequently increase the drama.
Acknowledging this reminds me of Charlie, a firefighter from Boston. He was leading a training session on suicide prevention and Critical Incident Stress and he said, in his thick New England accent, “Ya know, we full time fiahfightahs go to an incident, then we come back to the fiahhawse and we tawk about the incident, until the next cawl. We kinda debrief ourselves.”
Many of the volunteer firefighters I work with don’t discuss the incident beyond the firehouse. We certainly do not wish to inflict secondary trauma on our loved ones, so the incident stays unshared. The stress is either neutralized by numbing it out or it festers. As long as our mental health is strong, we cope.
For many first responders, tension builds up in a way similar to pulling back or walking into a sling shot.
There is only so much we can stretch and eventually it takes 100% of our energy just to maintain the tension.
Adrenaline is a byproduct of stress. It is released when our bodies believe we are in a stressful situation. Our heart rate increases, we breathe faster, our senses are keener.
Many first responders are adrenaline junkies, which complicates Critical Incident Stress. Even though they are dealing with tension and trauma, that rush of adrenaline is addictive.
The first responder then begins to draw energy from outside sources, often triggering family, friends, and colleagues. They all move from being at their best to being at their worst. Everyone becomes more difficult to live with.
Take a couple overly dramatic first responders and put them in a fire hall together – personal insanity becomes group insanity. The Fire Chief or station commander is soon caught in the eye of a storm.
The station commander finds a tempest, a whirlwind, a vortex of drama and politics. It’s based on who is a victim of what, what expectations are not being met, who is getting rewarded and punished, and anxious fantasies about what will happen next. The higher the stress, the deeper and faster the vortex.
As we stand in the centre of the maelstrom with the station commander, chaplains are often identified as Captains Without Rank. This is where chaplaincy becomes an art.
Chaplains, by nature, stand amidst those who administer as well as those who are administered. Whether it is in prison, in the military, at a hospital, in a fire station, or at a precinct. I frequently identify chaplains as mental health (spiritual health) safety officers.
As a chaplain, I contribute an awareness, words, presence and bear witness to that which is frequently and previously unspoken.
This is why I am a chaplain – I am called to witness, act, dedicate, support, speak to, speak against, translate and yield to transformation of Grace, and to let my little light shine as my candle is only so long, and my energy given a defined period of time in this body at this time.
Sometimes, I am with those at the scene. Often, it’s the kitchen of the firehall, debriefing with my colleagues. I stand, navigating Critical Incident Stress with those beside me.
Have you identified people who can ground you, listen be present and walk with you through difficult times? Let me know in the comments.