Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Thoughts on Fire, PTSD, and Stress

Happy Camp fire 2014
Happy Camp fire 2014; photo credit: Justin Vernon

Thoughts on fire, PTSD, and stress

by Justin Vernon

There have been a few articles and news clips I’ve read on Facebook recently that provoked discussion, and motivated me to write a no-so-short opinion piece with my thoughts on the matter. The first is a feel-good type of clip from NBC News, interviewing firefighters on the Happy Camp Complex in Northern California. In the clip you hear, more than once, firefighters mention the various mental difficulties of the job. The second garnered very strong conversation on various social media pages, and is from USA Todaytalking about PTSD and firefighters. The two are linked, I feel, because they both deal with difficulties facing wildland firefighters today.

My initial thoughts after reading the PTSD article, and seeing the flood of comments both for and against the idea that firefighters can in fact exhibit signs and symptoms of long term stress, was that while very few fire folks experience PTSD in the modern, full-fledged military definition, almost all of us are exposed to stresses that can trigger mild symptoms without us even realizing it. Compared to military personnel who experience multiple deployments overseas, see friends and comrades get shot, blown up, and live in brutal environmental conditions for months on end, we firefighters have it pretty easy. There’s no denying that. But I’ve seen young veterans diagnosed with PTSD who had relatively easy deployments, weren’t shot at, didn’t see friends die, and rarely left the security of the base. They had it relatively “easy” compared to other young veterans I know who did experience the worst that the recent conflicts had to offer.

My point isn’t to disparage or question those who served; rather, it is to point out that there are varying levels of PTSD, and different people respond differently to different stressors. I disagree with parts of the USA Today article implying that climate change and longer fire seasons are causing PTSD in firefighters. But I do agree that many of us do experience PTSD. You can’t tell me that those who have experienced tragedy first hand aren’t susceptible to PTSD, and while those events are relatively rare, they do happen more often than we’d like them to. The fire community is small compared to the military, and it only gets smaller the longer you do it. It seems that even after 14 short years in the field, I will almost always see people I know on a fire assignment, no matter where it is. This smallness means that when tragedy does strike, it will have a larger impact on the community as whole than might be thought just looking at the number of firefighters in the USA. Those of us that choose this as a career and stick with it form the core of what is in reality a fairly small group, and events like Yarnell create national ripples that feel more like tsunami waves in our spheres of influence.

But I think the larger issue, and the one that deserves a closer look, is the long-term exposure to constant low-level stress that many of us face for a majority of the year. As is alluded to in the NBC News clip, many of us spend a majority of our time in the summer away from friends, family,and our homes. How many hotshot crews, helitack crews, smokejumpers, and others spend the period from May through October working a 14 days on, 2 days off schedule, with the 14 to 16-hour day being typical? Many of us do, and regardless of the allure of overtime, it’s impossible to work that schedule year after year with it taking a toll on our personal lives. How many fathers and mothers on hotshot crews have missed kids birthdays, anniversaries, even weddings of friends and family because they felt that they couldn’t take the time off to be there? How many of us have trouble forming lasting relationships because our seasonal schedule disrupts the cycles that most people consider normal?

Let me describe a bit more some of the things that cause stress among some groups of wildland firefighters. For most of my summer, for example, I can be called to a fire at any time. This means that most mornings I leave my apartment not knowing if I’ll return that evening, or even that week. To a degree I have to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice, and that tension is reflected in how I live my daily life during the summer. While I enjoy the adventure of not knowing where I’ll lay my head each night, after a while it begins to wear me down. Not being able to schedule time with friends and family, canceling dates because I’m three states away on a campaign fire, these things create stress.

The same stress is created when you spend two weeks at a time away from home. While I don’t have a family of my own just yet, I see the stress being away from family and missing the small moments creates in others. I know dads who regularly miss the birthdays of their kids, and while they deal with it for various reasons, it’s not fun.

Then there’s the stress of the actual job, the sleeping on the ground for weeks on end, the physical toll taken after a long season of digging line, running chainsaws, and hiking up and down some of the roughest terrain in the country. There are the health issues – the camp crud that is a fixture in most large fire camps, the bronchitis and sinus problems that come with breathing smoke on the line and in the valley inversions that can be so common at fire camps. Not to mention the rolled ankles, sprained knees, minor cuts and scrapes that accumulate over a season that aren’t in and of themselves problematic, but can be stressful over the long run.

There’s also a cultural stress. As a group it’s often frowned upon to be the “weak” member of the group who needs more time off for whatever reason. Granted, some crews are better than others at fostering family time and allowing for days off, but as a whole it’s tough. When the culture places great emphasis on being there all the time for the crew, and the crew becomes your family, it creates a kind of stress when you put other life priorities before the crew. I took two weeks off in July for the first time in 14 years to visit family in Montana, and while my supervisors were great in allowing me to do so, I took an enormous amount of crap from my coworkers for it. It was mostly in good fun, but when a large fire broke on my home unit while I was on vacation it caused momentary pangs of guilt that I was off having fun while my crew was working their ass off.

The point of this long-winded, rambling essay isn’t to say “poor us,” or “feel sorry for me;” it’s to highlight that it can be stressful job, and not for the reasons most people would think. Sure, we face fire in it’s most raw and primal form, but that’s not necessarily what causes our stress and anxiety. While we don’t face the trials of combat, we do face many of the others things that cause PTSD among veterans – the time away from home in a stressful environment, the percieved lack of control over our personal lives – albeit on a different scale.

I think that fire is a great job, in part because of the challenges, but I think that as the fire organization evolves to meet new challenges, we have to change our expectations of firefighters as employees. For most of the country, fire season isn’t something that happens between July and September anymore. For some places, wildland fire is now a year-round endeavor, and while we’ve adapted in some ways by funding crews year-round instead of seasonally, we still have that mentality of working all we can while there’s work. While that was fine when fire season meant a few busy weeks in late summer for the local crews, it leads to burnout when fire season extends across regions, and crews chase fire from May until October, or in the case of California, from January through December. It’s rapidly becoming a year-round job, yet we still mostly treat firefighters as temporary or seasonal employees.

We have to take a longer view, and treat fire not like an emergency where it’s “all hands on deck” until the end of fire season, but as our job, and approach it appropriately. We’re in this for the marathon, not the sprint, and we should act accordingly.

It’s time to wrap up for now… for some folks it’s been a long, busy season, and for others it’s been a long, slow season. Stay safe out there as the season keeps on truckin’ in California.

Until next time…

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Justin Vernon is a regular guest contributor on our blog. Justin works for the United States Forest Service and is a member of Sparks for Professional Reading Program Change. Check out his Chasing Fire blog. All expressions are those of the author.

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