Let’s talk about being a father when you’re in public safety – whether it’s Police, Fire, or EMS. I’m a father of three (soon to be four) beautiful little girls. Some of you that know me personally understand just how much those little girls run my life. So you should know that when I proudly proclaim, “I am the king of the house,” it only applies if my wife and daughters aren’t there. Once they get home, I’m more of a court jester.
That said, every day I’m on shift I get up, strap on my tough guy fireman uniform, get in my tough guy fireman vehicle, and go to my tough guy fireman station. And while I’m there I usually do tough guy fireman stuff like saving orphans and kittens and orphaned kittens. And respond to emails (actually a pretty daunting task).
I’ve been doing all of this tough guy fireman stuff since before my kids were born. When my wife told me she was pregnant with our first child, one of the first thoughts I had was, “this child is going to be able to tell all the other kids that her dad is a tough fireman. Nobody is going to mess with her.” I took pride in the fact that when it came time for the kids to bring us to school for “show-off-your-parents-and-their-cool-jobs” day, my child would be the envy of the other kids because her dad was an awesome tough guy fireman.
Now that we’ve gotten all that BS out of the way, let me tell you about the time a “tough” fireman was reduced to a slobbering, sniveling mess in the arms of his then-two-year-old daughter.
It was early 2012. I was riding seat (in-charge for you donut-eaters) with two other firefighters assigned to my apparatus. I was at the end of what would be an 18-month stretch of terrible calls. Every First Responder has a call that they can never forget. It’s part of the job. Most of the time it’s a specific, stressful incident that can often make you question why you started down this road of a thankless, underpaid career. These kinds of calls are (thankfully) usually few and far between. The worst of them involve children. Again, these calls are rare, yet profound.
I had made five in 18 months. Five pediatric fatalities. All of them under three years of age. I had racked up a career’s worth of crappy incidents in an 18-month period. I was mentally at the breaking point and on the verge of burnout but did nothing about it because I was a tough guy fireman. At no point during those 18 months did I seek out professional counseling or even peer support, because that’s not something tough guy firemen do. We clean the blood from our boots and get back on the truck. We don’t whine about our feelings. We get over it. Right? Right??
I might’ve been a tough guy fireman, but man was I a dummy.
Then, the incident that finally tipped the scales occurred. It was a clear, crisp morning. We were doing what firemen do best – making sure the recliners couldn’t escape. The station alert opened up and let us know that we were going to yet another motor vehicle accident. We climbed up into the apparatus and started heading for the dispatched address. Nobody in the pumper was too excited because, duh, we’re tough guy firemen. We do this stuff all the time.
I had just finished putting us enroute over the radio when we heard the voice of an unusually stressed dispatcher. The additional information now stated that the simple motor vehicle accident we were responding to was, in fact, an auto versus pedestrian. And the pedestrian on the receiving end of said auto was a little girl.
The stress level inside that pumper went from stoner college dropout to bomb disposal technician in a matter of seconds. The mental rolodex of all the tough guy fireman stuff I was supposed to do started flipping at a high rate of speed in my head. Stay calm. Give orders. Follow your training. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
Then we arrived on scene and my brain lit the rolodex on fire, threw it on the ground, and pissed on the ashes. The scene was utter chaos. There were people everywhere. Residents near the incident, hearing the commotion, flooded out of their houses to see what was going on. And the strangest part was that there was no centralization to the mob. Everybody was wandering around, many of them shouting or crying or just in a state of confusion. There were so many people that it actually took a brief second for us to figure out where the patient was.
Then we saw her. She looked like she could have been sleeping. In that moment, my brain decided to cooperate. It picked the rolodex back up off the ground, dusted it off, and directed me to go to work. I won’t go into too much detail other than to tell you that from the point we got to the patient, until we handed off care to the hospital, the men and women I was with at that scene performed flawlessly. Everybody knew what to do and was performing tasks that needed to be done before anybody had to ask them to do it. Every life-saving measure was exhausted trying to save this little girl’s life.
Unfortunately, our efforts could not overcome her injuries. This happens. It had happened. This pediatric fatality was now number six in an 18-month period. I fully expected to deal with this one like I had dealt with all the other ones. We would go back to the station. Everybody would retreat to their corners of the building. The rest of the shift would be quiet, with nobody wanting to admit just how much we were affected. We would get off in the morning, still not having acknowledged the gravity of what had happened. Then we would come back to work the next shift like nothing had happened and get ready for the next one. That’s how tough guy firemen handle it. That’s just “what we do”.
Hey, look! There’s that big dummy I’ve been talking about.
During that incident, I rode to the hospital in the back of the ambulance to assist with the life-saving efforts. The Deputy Chief for the department drove his Tahoe to the hospital to pick me up and bring me back to the scene so that I could be reunited with my crew. I had been through this same routine before. Chief picks me up, brings me back to the scene, we stay there until we get released by DPS, go back to the station, and so on.
But this time felt … different. I remember pulling back up to the scene. My Deputy Chief (who was well aware of my recent history with pediatric incidents) put his Tahoe in park, looked over at me and asked, “what do you want to do?”
I blinked for a second, not understanding what he was asking me. Then, it clicked.
He’s asking you if you’re okay to get back on the truck, you tough guy dummy.
In that moment, I realized I had absolutely no desire to get back on the apparatus with my crew. For the first time in my career as a firefighter, I honestly did not want to wash the blood from my boots and get back on the truck. I would like to say I was alarmed by this realization, but I actually wasn’t feeling much of anything at that moment. Looking back at it now, this tough guy fireman was in shock. That’s the best way to describe it. I felt … nothing.
I looked back at him for a moment, then looked forward, past the windshield to where the rest of my crew stood among the flashing lights and scene tape. Before I realized I was speaking, my face hole formed and spoke the words, “I want to go home.” My Deputy Chief, understanding what needed to happen, silently put the truck in reverse, turned around, and started heading back to the station.
As I left the station, I called my wife. I told her that there was a bad call at work and that I was heading home. Then I realized how bad that sounded and had to reassure her that I wasn’t hurt or anything, it was just a bad call and I no longer wanted to be there. Then I realized how strange that sounded and said to hell with it, I’ll explain it when you get home. She feigned understanding and told me since I was getting home early (about 18 hours early), our daughter would be super excited if I surprised her at daycare and picked her up. So I did. Still in a state of semi-shock, I picked our daughter up from daycare and brought her home.
Our daughter neither understood nor particularly cared why there was a break in protocol and daddy was picking her up. I had freed her from that hellish prison of juice, cookies, and nap time. She could finally return to the barbie doll saga that she had started to play out in our living room the day before.
So that’s what she did. As soon as we walked in the front door of our house, she bolted towards her toy box, retrieved the plastic main characters of her imagined world and began to play. I walked to “my chair” (a leather recliner that had the same texture as a well-used football – every dad should have one) and sat down. I sat there, staring at my two-year-old daughter, but actually looking past her into … nothing.
Most people know this as the “thousand-yard stare.” I sat in my chair, staring off into space, reflecting on the day’s events. At that moment, I felt locked in my own head. I relived that incident a hundred times as I sat there. I felt alone, angry, sad, worthless, inadequate, untrained, and a multitude of other feelings all at the same time.
I didn’t notice my daughter had stopped playing and was staring back at me until she stood and began to walk towards me. I then realized the sadness and despair that she must have seen on my face. This was something she had never seen before. I was the tough guy dad fireman. I didn’t get sad. I was the tough dummy. I mean tough fireman dummy. I mean tough guy fireman.
In that moment, my two-year-old daughter realized that her tough guy fireman dad was hurting. She put her barbies down, walked over to me, climbed up on my lap, and put her head down on my chest. She put her hand right over my heart and began to pat me, like I had done for her so many nights when I was trying to get her to go to sleep. Then she started to whisper, in the sweet voice that could only come from a two-year-old little girl, “Shhhh. It’s ok daddy.” And she kept repeating that over and over as she patted my chest. Never raising her head. Never squirming to go back and play. In that place in time, in that moment, she was taking care of her daddy.
My face started leaking. Slowly at first, then more gradually until I was full-on ugly crying. All of the mental anguish that had been building for the past 18 months had come to a head that day. I sat in my chair, my little girl in my lap, her taking care of me as if she had done it a hundred times before.
That’s when I realized something about fathers in general and, more specifically, those of us in public safety positions. It’s okay for your kids to think you’re an invincible superhero. But don’t go believing that crap yourself. Ask for help when you need it. Knock off all the bravado crap and take charge of your well-being. Because if it gets to the point that you’re slobbering and crying like a baby in the arms of your two-year-old, maybe you’re past due for some support.
I sought out peer support. I talked with those who have been through what I have. I learned techniques to handle some of the more difficult aspects of this job. That way, I can be the superhero they need me to be, when they need me to be.
One of my favorite quotes is about kids looking up to their parents. It simply states:
“They want to be just like you. Be worth being.”