Under fire

By Chief Sam DiGiovanna

I love everything about the fire service. I have been involved with it since age 15 as an Explorer with the Los Angeles County Fire Department. I immediately fell in love with it. Attending fire science classes in the evening, I could not wait to graduate from high school and start testing. This was my calling! I never attended a prom, fifth quarter dance, homecoming game and most school events. My junior and senior years I could be found at fire stations. I am sure I missed out on many things during this time, but I have no regrets.

Exposed to a lot of traumatic incidents at an early age, I was not sure how my coping mechanism was working or if I was just sweeping it under the rug. I saw more traumatic events the last two years of high school than most people would see in a lifetime. Just when you say, “I think I’ve seen it all,” something else unimaginable pops up.

Fortunately, or unfortunately (depending on how you view it) I was hired right out of high school and never looked back. I love the fire service.

Like prison, the fire service is an institution. Once in, it is hard to get out. The love of the job never leaves. Eventually you get released (retire) from the institution, however, many find a way to go back to the institution you know so well, and spent most of your life in. Good or bad – healthy or unhealthy? I do not have the answer. I just know what I feel.

I recently read a great book called “Under Fire” by Fire Chief Thomas Wills. I immediately related with the stories Chief Wills shared in his book. From being a firefighter to fire chief brings both tremendous satisfaction as well as a tremendous amount of stress. Especially as a fire chief, constantly “Under Fire.”

Chief Wills talks about both the cast of characters we work with and our “customers” that we respond on and the experiences from both, good and bad.

As Chief Wills mentions, firefighters, paramedics, and police officers are routinely exposed to and witness some of the most graphic and horrific scenes. This creates a toxic mixture of career stress. Many times these experiences unknowingly leave deep scars.

Sweeping them under the rug, these scars go undetected and undisturbed until something triggers the buried emotion.

When responding on incidents it’s an honor to request additional resources, a second or third alarm or specialized equipment to support the initial assignment incident. Incidents are dynamic and many times grow beyond what is at our immediate disposal of resources assigned. It demonstrates “we are solid” and possess the ability to make sound decisions. He/she has it together…

Why is it all too often, we lack the ability to request additional assistance/resources for ourselves when we become overwhelmed? Pride, ego, fear, and being afraid of what others may think, perhaps?

Even though we have come a long way regarding the de-stigmatization of therapy, it still seems as if reaching out and asking for professional help is the last option for most people.

In an article I recently read from Psychology Today (full article https://lnkd.in/gdF-83V)

it said: When you’re faced with feelings or experiences that are challenging, frightening, or overwhelming, asking for help means you care enough about yourself to increase the likelihood that things will work out in your favor by getting the support you deserve. Learning how to be selective when you reach out can also increase your chances of getting a safe and compassionate response.

Think about these questions as you take the first brave steps toward asking for help when you need it:

  • What are the situations in your life that would benefit from outside help and support?
  • Who are the people in your life who would be safe to reach out to for assistance?
  • What professional resources would you encourage a best friend to use if they needed help?
  • What are three ways in which asking for professional help can be a sign of strength?

It takes great inner strength to ask for help. Especially when under fire. It should not be viewed as a “weakness” or “failure.”

Asking for help is not a burden nor a sign of weakness; it is a sign of humanness.

Being capable and resourceful are necessary in order to develop true emotional strength, confidence, and a sense of well-being.

 Sam DiGiovanna is a 35-year fire service veteran. He started with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, served as Fire Chief at the Monrovia Fire Department and currently serves as Chief at the Verdugo Fire Academy in Glendale. He also is a consultant for www.Cordico.com