When Personal Issues Aren’t Personal

I was thumbing through Facebook this afternoon when an alert came up in my feed about people liking a top post on the Fire Engineering Training page. I decided to check it out.

Turns out it was a single pane comic by Paul Combs, and it shows a grizzled driver at the wheel of his apparatus snarling at his officer that there wasn’t anything wrong with him and that his mood was fine, while his helmet (as Mr Combs often uses to display an issue) shows common issues like “Finances” and “Family” with a big “Off Duty Issues” between them.

The commentary underneath said “Try to leave home at home, and the firehouse at the firehouse.”

That idea is fairly easy for someone like a plumber or an electrician, where the consequences of distraction may be isolated to the individual, and could be less painful so to speak. But in emergency services, the consequences of distraction go far beyond the individual.

The military used to teach young, budding platoon leaders that distracted soldiers could get their whole squad or platoon killed because they were thinking about home issues when they needed to be focused on the task at hand. Meaning that the platoon leader, guided by his platoon sergeant, should identify soldiers having issues outside of the Army and try to address those issues so that their soldiers will remain task focused.

One of my favorite scenes from “Heartbreak Ridge” starring Clint Eastwood was where a Marine failed to show for formation and Gunny Highway went to his home off-base, where the Marines had several children and was appearing to have a tough time financially. He explained that he had been working a second job because he needed the money. Gunny Highway slipped the man a few hundred dollars, calling it a “Gunnery Sergeant’s Fund,” and telling him that he can help him but he needs to start making formation like he’s supposed to. This impressed a young Marine PFC played by Mario van Peebles, seeing a softer side of the grizzled Highway.

In the fire service, as in the military, a distracted member puts the team at risk. Thinking about home issues while you’re trying to work can cause that member to lose focus and miss a step, miss an indicator of building collapse, or otherwise overlook details that they would normally notice. It can drag the whole team down and put others at risk. I’ve seen guys show up at seconds till shift start looking like hell, repeatedly, or fail to report, and a man has to hold over while someone goes to check on them. It’s not pretty. Some have even committed suicide, and while everyone knew they had substance abuse and other issues, the word going around was that no one knew exactly what to do about it since it didn’t directly affect the department.

Company officers, as first line supervisors, should be well versed in formal and informal means of counselling. They should also be very well aware of programs and procedures for getting members that need assistance with any type of life issues outside of work that begin to affect job performance. With the rise in awareness about PTSD, we still fail to recognize it in our own people and even ourselves.

Personal issues, once they cross the line and start affecting our work, are no longer “personal” matters. Our job, at it’s height, requires concentration on the task at hand, and a lapse or oversight can hurt or kill a teammate. I’m going to expand on tips for members and officers to use when home life comes to work.

This article was written by rstine