A Fireman's view became Fireman's Tired Eyes.
I was tired of everything I had witnessed.
I am a retired professional Fireman (Firefighter) of 28 years service
Taken on last night shift with
Red Watch Swindon ....01.09.2017
Officially retired on 28.09.17 with 30 years pension at 50
How lucky am I to have this contract granted as it's changed so much since then.
I still fight for my colleagues and their rights.
(A/L used for all of Sept until leave date.)
Can't believe I actually made it.........
Wife and Kids on last morning of shift................
traditional send off with plenty of buckets and hosereel.
Family managed to stay dry, unlike me.
Fire Service........................wow, proud to be part of something special.........
Miss the Clowns................
............but not the Circus
I joined the service as a mere boy of 21 years old.
12 weeks of basic training at Reigate, Sept 1989, getting a whole new life drummed into me. Being shouted at and kept active, which seemed a little OTT at the time, (even by ex army blokes that were there,) but hey who was I to challenge or question. I was a " do as your told" probationer. ....oh yeah and drop and give me pushups or double round the drill yard probby. " Don't drag that coupling," along with all the F's and Jeff's being bellowed out still makes every Fireman smirk and curse I'm sure.
Seems a lifetime ago now.
I have been retired since Sept 2017, yet at times it seems unreal and I was never in it.
How can that be when I've made such close bonds with such amazing colleagues and friends, and yet I can feel, smell and recall things so vividly, that at times, it will stop me in my tracks, bringing up emotions that have been suppressed.
Before I cover more on my Fire career, I feel it's important you have an insight into who I really am and where my outlook is coming from.
At the age of 17, I was playing football 3 times a weekend, swimming to County level and countless everything else that involved sports. Even open water white water canoeing and Lifegaurd courses. If it's a challenge, then I was up for it.
Very supportive parents and certainly not a classroom bod. Studying has always been hard, I'm a do'er..... not a thinker. Practical minded.
I also started my path of Shotokan Karate under the influence of an amazing Sensei and many others during my training.
I won't be using names in any of this by the way. Much respect to this man and his students and my friends who influenced my karate and my outlook on life.
So you can see the pattern emerging of keeping my body active has helped with my mindset.
I still train in Karate but only on my own now.
I took Black Belt Dan graded in 1992, as well as joining the Fire Service in 1989, so things were put on hold with regards to gaining rank in gradings, but continued with 2nd Dan 1994, 3rd Dan 1998 and 4th Dan in 2004.
Getting through basic training and probationary period and adjusting to Fire Service life was a priority.
So during this time I was pushing myself to levels, I thought impossible, however, I found it was within me. The martial arts has also given me an inner resilience for control and wellness.
(Something I have returned to again more regularly during this period of Lockdown as a coping strategy for my mental health.)
Competitions and gradings were about fighting and achieving and proving to self I could do it. Facing fears within me have been met many times. That said, I am not a scrapper and don't go looking for trouble, but very competitive with myself to do best I can and I will stand up for what is right.
So here I am 30 odd years later and knowing more about me, you could perceive me as a rough tough Fireman Karate man, ready to deal with anything. And you'd be right to a degree. Over the years I have been conditioned to react and respond to what is in front of me, either in my Karate or at Service incidents. Dealing with it calmly and effectively, and doing the best to stay safe. Through-out my job I have witnessed an accumulation of a wide variety of trauma. I am also human and compassionate. Like it or not, it has all been absorbed over time. I like to think I have reacted and dealt with nearly everything that has been thrown at me in a calm calculated manor, looking after the public and my crew. It's been ingrained into me since 1995 when promoted I guess. Your role is to protect your crew and public and be a decision-maker from a collective of ideas from the crew. Like said we all have abilities to bring to the table.
However, under everyone's exterior who is putting themselves out there to save other's, they will have a caring compassionate nature. So, in turn, it may leave them at times humble and open to being vulnerable.
I am open enough to allow the world to see the real me. In doing so, others may allow themselves the grace of taking a rest and not being ok. Or for their families to help recognise and understand a little more.
Helping my colleagues and others if needed.
I have been in some dark places and dealt with stuff already. I believe it's important to keep talking and not bottle things up, hopefully, later you will relate to things and maybe find useful.
Karate has taught me to be humble, those that are close and know me will know I am a very open book and honest. Funny that being honest can stop you from getting promoted further though lol.
Stationed on a W/T Day Crewed station doing a lovely 96 hours on and 48 hours off. At 22 this was ok and I coped with the sleepless nights. I soon had grey hair at the age of 28 though.
Promoted in 1995 to Leading Fireman (LFm now Crew Manager, CM) and went to shift pattern of 2 days 2 nights and 4 off. Remained this rank until the end. I was Temp Watch / Sub for many occasions during my career and dealt with many members of the watches and everything that life throws at us. Being there as a boss, a listener and friend to watch life and home life issues, but also as a moral and link pin from Management down. My Sub Officer's in the main have been brilliant, ( 1 I can think of that isn't on my mate's list lol), but great deflectors of the tosh that came down. The rest have been a pleasure to work with and hope I haven't let them down, I'm sure they will beg to differ. My sense of humour hasn't faltered, as with all of us it can be dark at times to help cope, and viewed by those who haven't been subjected to the horrors of the world as cruel, but it's our way of coping ................................
A little bit of insanity and humour goes a long way in this crazy world.
Remember ................. Laughter is infectious and good for you.
I've had to be the mediator from the shop floor up to management and back down, this has also highlighted the reasons why I shouldn't go higher.
I've never asked anyone to do something I wouldn't do myself and will always lead by example, usually asking for a volunteer to join me.
I've been divorced, re-married and have 3 amazing children. Maybe the job was a contributing factor, but I am now with someone truly special and happy.
I've said goodbye at funeral's to my best friend on my 40th birthday, other mates and relatives, and evenly recently my mother. Plus seen mortality on far too many occasions during my career.
I was also a Falconer for 14 years with own business doing educational talks and small displays. This was so incredibly helpful in my own therapy for grounding and being in the moment.
I will go into more depth on another thread on this later.
I have always been strong in my mind and always stood firm in my ethics and standards............ it's about my family, public, crew and then me, so standing up to management, councils and MP's and voicing an honest opinion wasn't always welcomed by them, hence the lack of promotions after I guess, but I have a clear mind and can sleep at night. I am not influenced or swayed if it's not right.
I was a BAI for over 15 years, Rope and Water Rescue and Coxswain (coastal,)trained, H.P. cage and Rescue tender, involved in animal rescue's so had a very varied run of incidents as you can imagine.
I've seen 4 CFO's in my career, had 4 BA sets and 4 fire helmets, sat on numerous trucks and started in yellow leggings. Wow, lots of changes along the way. Some things introduced that were not for the better.
This continued even up to my last night shift, but as I am mainly upbeat and optimistic, ( hard to believe they would say,) the DCFO did his part and basically said we needed more people like me in the job. To which I thanked him......................... the look on the other Officer's faces was a relief as I had not said anything. Paused for a second or 2 and then said, "thank you, however, maybe you should grow some and start standing up for yourself then. "
He really didn't know how to take this as I would always try to challenge them with a big smile and laugh.
So many will hide behind a smile...................., it's ok to not be ok!!
There is much bravado and testosterone on stations, and yes at times its called upon, but sometimes the loud laughter is covering up the real emotions.
Hence the reason for opening up on here..............I'm not here to fix, mend or cure anyone............I'm here to highlight things that have challenged me in hope that you will realise you are not alone in feeling these things, some of what you face is possibly way worse, and I am thankful I haven't experienced worse.........yet!.
I truly hope I never do.
This is to give you hope and a laugh at my expense if you like, remember, piss-taking is important as long as it is light-hearted.
We had a moral board on the station, (wall covered in pics of Firefighters,) in the mess room. It was always of watch members with bubble captions, just hilarious. Sadly new management had it removed. Our sense of humour won't be broken. So this was transferred to the back of mess cupboards.
In doing this blog I have put myself out there. You can call me whatever you like and may say, " that's nothing to what I'm going through", that's fine, and I'm truly sorry you are going through this too.
I'm not here to compete.
I'm just bringing you my story that maybe you can relate to. Maybe try ways to help you deal with the obstacles you're facing. It's important to keep talking it through.
And possibly point you in the direction of your choice for professional help if you need it.....
What's the phrase?.........................Same old shit, just different depth?
......I truly wish you well in health and on your journey.
Am I Feeling Guilty for not being part of a team and there helping?
So why am I compelled to write a blog on life in the Fire Service and Mental Health effects?
Am I writing this for anyone who needs a helping hand or am I writing this for me? Or both?
Having more time on my hands has allowed me time to process my thoughts and feelings.
Because I know what I've witnessed and accumulated and how it's affected me.
Plus in turn, it's how its seen by our family and friends. They joined the Service too through you, and what we see and deal with does come home at times, however hard we try not to.
Maybe we need to be more open and help ourselves too. Why do we put ourselves last all the time?
As a parent, the priority is kids first, then me. It's a primal instinct, but at some point, we owe it to ourselves to stay healthy too.
If the air cabin pressure drops on a flight, masks fall down and we are instructed to put your own mask on before helping others. Makes sense really.
When nearing my retirement date I started to actually doubt and question I'd make it out.
Just before I left the terrible incident of a huge tower block occurred.
I don't want to start blaming etc, all I know is so many went over and above the call of duty, everything they were trained to do and couldn't possibly stick to Policy and Procedures. How the hell could you with this situation. My heart goes out to so many.
This incident would have broken me, upsetting just to witness let alone attend.
The Twin Towers, (9/11,) also happened whilst we were on duty. We had done our bit involving other service members from across the world, brothers and sisters brought closer together. As all of us serving we know it could have been any one of us, just have to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The same goes for Military personnel, we all know what we are putting forward for and the potential consequences.
Too busy and cracking on with the job to notice. There was stuff that needed doing and in between all that, there were shouts to attend and deal with. Sleep was a luxury. No time to be ill either. How many of us have carried other watch members due to injuries etc? That's what you do for your mates right?
Being part of a team, you get mobilised, you turn up, you organise and deal with, you pack up and go back, clean everything and then eat or drink tea, hoorah!!
...........................................oh yeah and don't forget your medals........not! lol
We don't do it for that, we do it because we care and have a huge heart, beneath all that hard exterior, we all have a soft compassionate heart. Or at least I can say I have or am willing to say I have.
So not being called upon after being conditioned for so many years is difficult to adjust to.
When we were back in the UK, we were with friends and out for the day to walk around the Yorkshire Dales. The roads empty for an early Saturday, but on a motorway up head was an accident, it must have only just happened. We halted in the traffic and instinctively my belt was off and I was asking was it safe to open the door. It took all 3 of them to nag me into not going as it's not my job anymore. It seemed like forever for the 2 appliances and Ambo to arrive. But they were right, I had no PPE and no equipment, it's just me. Had we been closer up the queue of traffic it may have been different, but I have done my service and it's time to look after myself. I'd be at risk on the motorway, no high viz either. No-one watching my back.
Just before I retired I came out in eczema on both my calves and forearms!! What was this all about?
In a nutshell, all the accumulated stress I had absorbed over the years. Yes, stress is very real and who hasn't had IBS and digestive issues. Night shifts and irregular eating will help all that. Eating anything and everything to just keep going. Sound familiar. It's not good long term. Would you run a marathon every day? Eventually, something will give. Eating irregularly and rubbish quality foods and broken sleep patterns.
My immune as very low and as much as I felt good in my mind my body was showing me differently.
Eczema flared up, autoimmune system low due to stress
The inflammatory response coming out in my skin.
We went to Bali literally days after leaving. Wow how humbling a place. I'm not religious, spiritual maybe, but here their religion was accepting of everyone else's. Brilliant outlook on life, they have very little, yet just want to give and smile all the time. Whilst there we witnessed the volcano erupting. People on the party group were getting worried and it makes you feel pretty insignificant when faced with a situation far greater than I've ever considered training for. But I instinctively reassured them and we had a plan.
Keep it simple, stupid. If the red stuff starts flying down on us we go out on the boats and if the sea goes quiet ( there were reports of an earthquake out at sea too, ) we go up the mountains.
Sense of humour and controlled guidance is what people need to remain calm. I recall saying to my wife that experiences like this just don't happen to me. She said, " and why shouldn't you, this will have to change then" ..........we have every intention of travelling as much as possible and to help whom we can as we do.
My eczema vanished with saltwater and a healthy diet and relaxation. Hardly surprising really.
We are just a person wearing a uniform, we bleed, hurt and eventually, we will all die.
Not pretty, just honest. My eczema has flared several times since when stressed so it is an ongoing process.
As I said, I don't have answers, only my experiences and things that have helped me.
I have on occasions been stopped in my tracks and wept, not blubbing, but had tears just rolling down my face as I have been triggered back to what I have absorbed, consciously or sub-consciously through-out my time.
Is it a guilt thing?
Am I finding it harder now I am no longer part of a team?
I didn't think I was that stressed really whilst in the job as doing around 100 hour week, the Fire Service and Falconry to earn a half-decent wage, paying the mortgage and trying to survive and raise 3 growing children. Later years I was parenting from a distance and still running a Falconry business and 2 mortgages..
We can all relate to some or all of this at some point probably.
How lucky am I to have found my soul mate during this too. She loves me for my positivity and sense of humour, well it can hardly be my looks, money or ! ...............lol.
She has studied and passed 'iRest Yoga Nedra', designed for the U.S. Military for dealing with PTSD.
(She did this to deal with the trauma of her own.) I'm sure she may have been using it on me at times, but its helped and I was unaware really.
There will be links on this at the bottom of this page that can direct you to free advice and information and self meditations.
So what makes me driven to write this?
Feelings of anxiety, fear maybe, overwhelmed by information being thrown at you, trying to rationalise it all to come up with a safe credible plan. Tell me you've never found yourself, thinking,
" Kin' just hang on a minute", the driver asking repeatedly where to go as the fantastic system installed on the truck has just crashed and Control on the radio calling you up. And the whole time you're trying to remain calm.
A frantic and stressed O.i.C doesn't bode well for the crew and casualty.
So a reset of thinking and deep breath and deal with each piece 1 at a time.
Then it starts again as we arrive at the incident.
I was in charge of the truck and crew for nearly 23 years and decisions were being made within seconds to protect my crew and the public's safety. Oh to have a luxury window of say 10 seconds to deal with a plan of action. And being adaptable to have plan B, C & D in place just in case.
Not a surprise that stress levels are high.
With the World in crisis as we are today, I cannot hide how horrendous it must be for so many trying their best whilst up against so many obstacles. Sleep-deprived and completely at risk.
So my tale is nothing compared to others, but I feel we should be looking after ourselves and be there as best we can be.
Stress and high continuous stress
is a killer.
Years ago we had a young lady join us for a week doing a study on stress and heart attack rates of Fire Fighters. She basically noted down our heart rates on call out, and at the job. Many of us were involved. Keeping myself fit and active my heart rate was around 55-60bpm at rest. When the bells went down, it rose to 85bpm. Adrenaline and cortisol kicking in, the fight or flight part of survival kicking in.
Which is ok in small doses. We are subjected to this more regularly than we think.
So many suffer in silence without fully understanding or identifying it.
Interestingly I asked if I could take the readings on night shifts too. I wore the heart rate monitor and my heart at complete rest was down to 48bpm. On the sounding of the station bells and me being down the pole to the appliance in maybe 10-15 seconds, my heart rate was 120bpm.
This isn't healthy for anyone, yet we do it without thinking and become conditioned to it.
Let it sink in and ask yourself if you can relate to any of this.
An incident as an example:
I recall an RTC where we were sent out on Rescue Tender backing up appliances as it was a serious collision. We arrived at least 25 minutes as it was right on the border of the county. It has head-on and 1 female severely injured and trapped. The roof was being removed and paramedics were working on her. She was physically trapped by the vehicle. This is where things change in our perspective. The Officer from the neighbouring county was walking around with a clipboard, doing an appraisal or some shit. The crews had come to a halt. So after maybe 10 seconds of nothing and not getting a response from the other OiC's to what they were wanting, after asking several times, I asked the doctor now on scene and the Paramedics what we could provide and options for helping them and casualty.
Is this confidence or arrogance? For me its about the casualty.
The Doctor and Paramedics were happy with what actions we could give to help.
I instructed crews on our plan and the lady was out fairly rapidly with crews combing well together.
We had our own Officer arrive (whom I have great respect for still) and he asked me not to mention anything in the debrief. I couldn't help myself as the gumph coming from said clipboard summary was just beyond me. We are here for the best opportunity for the casualty. Do that on the drill ground. Oh yeah and I offended one of our own OiC's too to taking over................ah well.
Why does this come up you wonder and stay in my memory?
This was around the time I was going through a divorce, having moved out of my home and not being able to be with my 3 kids. So here I was getting a bollocking for upsetting officers and the only thing that made sense was my love for my kids and service to the public through my job. We agreed to disagree and are still good friends thankfully, but after he walked away I found myself stood by my car ready to get in and walk away!! What I forgot to mention, is the poor lady sadly died from her injuries. The paramedics made a point of thanking us for our efforts just before the de-brief, before rushing her away to the hospital.
At what point are we here for humanity or for point scoring and statistics?
So rightly or wrongly I ask myself, what if?
What if I'd taken over earlier?
I'm not saying I'm right, I will always admit I'm if wrong. But maybe we could have saved her if acted quicker.
The knock-on effects of casualty to family, to the friends, but also to the absorption ratio's of Paramedics, Doctors, Nurses and Firefighters just keep topping up.
How do I know what my 'Triggers' are and what to do to possibly avoid?
This is completely different for every one of us. Traumatic events can be 1 huge event, ( this doesn't have to be a spectacular incident,) or much smaller events accumulated over time. It can be a comment, objects, a place, a smell. This can be emotional or physical. Sights, sounds, tastes and odours and sensations can take you straight back to the event vividly in your mind that you are there reliving. It may be the sight of blood, dates of incidents or the date of the death of a friend or loved one.
All this can have an effect on the loved ones close to you without you meaning to. Intimacy is no longer on your agenda, the brain doesn't need this to survive so shuts it away. Hugging your kids becomes almost unbearable as you could fall apart and you want to hold it together. You feel overprotective of them.
My eldest many years ago badly hurt his foot on a roundabout in a playground. I overreacted and made an arse of myself. Not having clarity of thinking and already at breaking point, I must have made him feel it was his fault. I had been so consumed with stuff in my head and now reacting to having to deal with another incident as it were, that I hadn't even considered my son and his thoughts. For this I am ashamed, I am truly sorry son. We are close and hopefully know how much you 3 mean to me. He was acting to prevent my youngest from being hurt as another kid was spinning the roundabout too quickly. I just needed to stop and rest and took my eyes off them for a second. Maybe you can relate to this small example, we just at times don't see the full picture because it's already so busy dealing with our stuff. How stupid of me though. Here was a youngster getting told off for hurting himself in trying to protect his younger brother. Had I not been overwhelmed by service stuff I'm sure I would have reacted differently.
We are inadvertently passing on stuff to our children.
Everyday stressors are on us, but it's how we react and deal with them that count.
Maybe you feel like your blood is rising, a wave of energy surging up within, or you freeze. At this moment you cannot even feel your heart beating. This is identifying and recognising you are reacting.
Who avoids BBQ's? The smell, certainly not for me. Brings things straight back.
So you can see things are still in progress. I'm an open book and will cry at funerals, not maybe because of the funeral, but it's the reality of life and death and I recall the incidents and casualties that sadly didn't make it.
For me, it's how precious life really is and on such a fine line we live it.
People are quick to label as PTSD, Acute Stress Disorder or having a breakdown, or stressed. But how quick are we to then help?
So you just avoid social events and public places. You start shutting down and being closed.
Who hasn't had that awkward moment where you find yourself talking to someone who you just know is going to ask stupid questions at parties? They say," oh you're a fireman, what's the worst incident you've seen?" Cheers, that was helpful. It's not their fault, they just don't understand.
What is important is that you are aware of it and don't let it consume you and build up and up.
A problem shared is a problem halved is the old saying.
So be prepared to open up and talk. I cannot change the past, but I can change what lies ahead and how I react. I love my kids more than ever and should be a role model for them, so my actions and words should reflect how they in turn respond and act in their lives too.
I hope I can achieve this for them.
Remember, breath. Take a 10-second breather before acting if you can. A big deep breathe, 2 or 3 times and you've already changed your energy. We do it in the truck en route to incidents to keep us calm so why not outside the job. Simple and effective and free.
Don't lose your sense of humour..........
the mess room table was always full of banter and laughter, maybe that's what I miss the most.
I recall I was still in probation and an early hours barn fire incident. Involving Propane cylinder (12) and we had to grab them and pull them out and move them out into the field. My mate 3 months more service than me were tasked with carrying these whilst everyone else was setting up water supplies of protecting surrounding buildings. I recall it may have been my second anniversary of the previous wife, and here we were running back and forth with pretty hot cylinders and some venting off. My colleague of a Scouse accent shall we say, said something along the lines of, " if this goes up we're both dead" to which I replied, " as long as they don't mix us up and I'm buried with a perm and in a bloody shell suit"
Important to not stop laughing, there are so many I could write a book on, I am sure you all have too, but is the laughs that will get you through this.
As another colleague said during my divorce, " you're not the first, nor the last, just deal with 1 bit a time"
Good advice, and to be used in life's journey and many things.
If you think of the incidents you've been on and all these are stored in your subconscious.
Like a photo album of all the holiday places, you've been.
I think of Bali, and I see the sunrise and dolphins as we went out early one morning. It's all in there.
So now I am filling my head with good stuff, making new albums of mountains and cycling and sunshine.
Ok, it may be a tad drastic moving to another country, but it's what we chose. It has had its challenges so not been easy. My eczema has flared up when selling the birds due to huge tax bills and with French life in general. Trust me I wept one day as reality sank in of me selling my birds, this was my therapy after all.
We aren't "living the dream", it's hard work, just more sun and a mountain view, life's still throwing its challenges, but I can say my quality of health has improved.
These days I am more grounded and practising my Martial Arts and cycling more regularly.
Hey, it works for me, you do what you need to do too.
It's never going to go away, but I am more aware and can acknowledge more and accept it without fear.
So many of us are needlessly suffering in silence without fully understanding or identifying the root cause. Some of the horrendous incidents we as humans have to witness, remember, this just isn't normal. So it will affect us all at some point.
Be here for you and each other too.
If by writing this I can make you laugh, or just relate to some of it, we are then on the road to coping.
Acknowledging and being aware is why I've started this.
In the hope to help my friends and colleagues and in turn their families.
Professional Help and Alternative Therapy
(from people that I know.)
call Samaritans / National Helplines,
talk to your FBU / Occ Health
for referrals, if you feel the need.
M.I.N.D.................tel: 0300 1233393
iREST YOGA NEDRA
Designed for USA military specifically with PTSD.
Free links and meditations for self-help.
(Free YouTube guided videos)
Kirsty Venghaus Transformational Coach
Alternative Therapy through ART:
Angela Corbin Art