Let me preface this by saying that I have no formal training in psychiatry, psychology, critical incident stress, philosophy, religion, nor do I think that how I deal with things at work will work for you. If you have problems with stress or are abusing drugs or alcohol because of stress at work, or have considered harming yourself or others as a release of stress, you should call your local suicide prevention or employee assistance program (EAP) immediately for help. If you don’t want to talk to people on the phone, you should talk to a supervisor (they are usually trained for this) or co-workers, or a priest/chaplain/rabbi/imam/pastor. Even if you are not religious you can contact a place of worship and most have prayer rooms or pastoral care. Even your family physician can provide you with referrals to the care you need. Do not try and cope on your own, because you don’t have to.
Having served 3 years in Memphis (at fairly busy locations) I have seen a few bad nights, and a few bad days even. When I was in the suburban and rural areas in Xenia, we saw more than a few bad nights. It seems to be a constant in fire and EMS that we have some nights that just beat us into the ground and test our mental reserve, endurance, and medical meddle. A friend came to me recently with a busy night in progress, I tried my best to impart what wisdom I had acquired from the busy and mean streets of Memphis:
1) Focus on why you are there
This business is full of ups and downs, and sometimes we lose focus of the purpose of the job. We are here to help people and when something is happening in someone’s life like they just saw a fiery crash on the highway, the baby stopped breathing, grandma hit the floor and isn’t moving, you will be sent to the scene in grandiose fashion in a loud fire engine/truck or ambulance with flashing lights. If you have arrived on scene and went “oh sh*t” to yourself as you pulled up, you know this feeling. This is a people business, and bad things often happen to good people usually at the hands of someone dumb and now you have to clean it up, so you should first remember that these are people you are dealing with, not high fidelity skills manikins.
2) Take a moment to breathe
Whatever is in your head, slow it down, break it down to details. Talk it out, step by step. I’ve said it before that the devil is in the details so you should examine yourself and your crew. Before you put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard in my case, to write/type your narrative slow everything down and breathe, slow the call down from beginning to end. Then perform step #3.
3) If you have something to say, get it out
Just what it says. If something went to hell in a handbasket or you are displeased about an action or a partner’s actions or you just have something to say, don’t leave it unsaid. But above all things, be tactful and respectful. Better your partner know where you stand and you of them, than you let there be something unsaid between you. That could make it out to be a LONG rotation. After all of this, do step #4.
4) Let it go
If you made a mistake, still hear the shrieking of a frightened parent, still see the face of the kid pinned in the car, or got upset at something that happened on the call, you need to do #1-3, then do step #4. You can’t do the next patient any good if you are still thinking about the last one, and you can’t go home if you are getting paid (unless you are sick or injured, different story). That is the difference I have noticed from when I went from volunteer to paid, I can’t quit in the middle of a shift, so it becomes less like a sprint and more like a marathon. You have to build up your endurance to run the long race. Part of that is letting go. What helps me is that once I close out a ticket, the call is over for me (unless I’m blogging about it, then I take notes) but the key is to move on to the next patient.
In Part 2 I will tell you my own story about dealing with stress, and how it applies to all of us.