“If you see something, say something!” became a common phrase and a sobering reminder of the change in the American social landscape when terrorism began affecting us on our own soil. We saw it on signs, there were commercials reminding us of the importance of it, and there were even success stories shared where we learned about thwarted terrorism plots that were stopped because ordinary civilians spoke up when something seemed amiss. It’s been almost 2 decades since the tragedy of 9/11, and still that phrase is as important today as it was back then. It doesn’t matter if you live in a thriving metropolis full of target hazards, or if you live in a rural location far from any apparent danger. It changed the way air travel security was handled, and it changed the way we all travel. We have all been reminded of the importance of staying aware of our surroundings and speaking up when we need to do so.
“If you see something, say something!” isn’t a new concept for first responders. We have been trained to speak up when something is dangerous. We are often accused of being too vigilant by our family and friends. We sit in a restaurant in a way that allows us to see the front door, and we know our exits in case of emergency. We drive in a way that assumes someone is going to do something wrong and endanger us. In fire academy we are taught, “Safety is everyone’s responsibility.” Crew Resource Management (CRM) became popular years ago after a commercial flight crashed, and it was discovered the flight crew didn’t speak up about some basic safety issues due to their position or rank in the cockpit. We now teach all first responders to take responsibility for safety. There are hiring boards who pose the question to potential recruits, “What would you do if on your first day at our department you run a fire and see the Chief standing in a collapse zone of a structure that has flame impingement.” We are all taught how to size up a building and read smoke so we can make a better attack on the fire and so we can make sure we make decisions that are safe. Firefighters are taught to ensure all crew members are buckled up safely prior to putting the apparatus in drive. All of these are examples we all have been taught and understand to be normal practice.
“If you see something, say something!” should be used by firefighters when we are concerned about a brother or sister. It should be emblazoned on our brains, and it should be posted in every fire station around the country. We are not asking our firefighters to be trained clinicians or psychiatrists. We don’t think that every firefighter should be well-versed in mental health lingo or be a certified peer counselor. We simply need to care enough to watch, care enough to ask, and care enough to act. In watching, we build relationships with other firefighters. They become more than co-workers; they become family. Once we know who they are and what makes them tick, we can see when something changes. Changes are what we see when others are struggling. It may not be obvious, but we have to look for it. Once we see the struggle, we can ask. It won’t be easy, and most people don’t simply answer what’s going on in their lives without an effort. However, if you build that relationship, you are asking from a position of someone who cares, and you are more likely to get a real answer. The last step is to act. When someone admits they need help, you need to step up and get them the help they need. You don’t have to fix it. You only need to know the resources that are available and how to access them for your firefighter family.
We have a group of firefighters who scoff at the idea that we can suffer from PTSD. These men and women tend to make statements about how soft the new firefighters are. “Suck it up, Buttercup!” “If you can’t handle this job, fast food joints are hiring!” “There’s no crying in the fire service!” These are the go-to phrases heard from these firefighters at fire houses every shift. After a tough call you either need to be silent or you make fun of the call you just ran. There is another group who seems to think that all firefighters are struggling to live or, even worse, are not excelling because we are all suffering from some level of PTSD. These individuals seem to look for negative effects from every call they run. They assume that every firefighter is not going to be able to make it much longer. We need to raise up a generation of firefighters who don’t fall on one side or the other of the huge pendulum swing of firefighter mental health. Real life examples have shown us that when we speak up, we can make a difference. You will not be able to fix every issue being faced by your fellow firefighters, but you can help some firefighters with some issues by simply caring enough to ask.
Those real-life examples are human beings who are now living testaments to the effectiveness of firefighters who care enough to speak up and say something. They are mothers and fathers who are now living life with a new, refreshed perspective, and they are more present for those they love. They are firefighters, driver engineers, lieutenants, captains, and chiefs in America who are making a difference in their communities. They are alive and thriving because of the care and actions of others who encouraged them to get help. Let’s create a fire service culture that is as proud of those accomplishments as we are about the incredible job we do protecting lives and property!