BRATTLEBORO—“Most of the time we can get fire to do what we want it to do,” said Fire Chief Michael Bucossi.
“We see ugly things,” he continued. “It’s the ugliness that you can’t control.”
Firefighting doesn’t wear down a firefighter’s psyche, say past and present personnel at the Brattleboro Fire Department.
It’s finding the body of the child that hid during a fire...
It’s trying to console family members after a loved one has committed suicide...
It’s crawling into a mangled car to ask the driver if he’s okay and hearing, “Son, is that you?”...
It’s asking yourself the often unanswerable question, “Was there something more I could have done?”...
At best these “ugly things” lead to stress. At worst, a firefighter can develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Many of the reports Bucossi said he’s read point to employees more often leaving emergency services because of mental well-being, rather than for physical injuries.
While not all stressful experiences will lead to PTSD, Bucossi believes in taking a proactive approach.
Bucossi has partnered with staff at the Brattleboro Retreat’s Uniformed Service Program (USP) to conduct workshops and provide advice on stress-management techniques for the BFD.
As a new firefighter in the late 1970s, Bucossi said the department’s attitude toward a crew member’s struggles was, “You just have to learn to deal with stuff.”
Or hearing, “If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.”
Bucossi disagrees. He said one of his jobs as chief is to keep staff safe and healthy.
Taxpayers’ money hires, trains, and outfits a firefighter, Bucossi said. To then lose someone in four years because of something they experienced on the job serving their community makes no sense.
On top of that, Bucossi continued, “Someone is leaving with their world in a bad place.”
The BFD has implemented multiple wellness strategies including nutrition, peer support, and exercise.
Firefighters are proud of their work and take it personally when a call ends badly, he said.
Bucossi still hashes over a fire from about 20 years ago. A child died, he said. He still wonders if he could have done something differently.
“It’s all part of something that’s finally being confronted [PTSD], there’s no more of that hiding it, being ashamed of it, or ignoring it,” Bucossi said. “You might be able to bury it, but you’ll never be able to live with it.”
The chief doesn’t want his crew to harbor such questions. He wants the BFD to be upfront about discussing staff struggles. He also wants staff to know they don’t have to worry about losing their jobs if they admit they want help.
“It’s their job that put them there in the first place,” he continued. “Why invest in an employee only to push them out the door?”
The Retreat’s Uniformed Service Program (USP) specializes in supporting emergency responders, military, and police officers struggling with PTSD.
According to Clinical Manager Susan Balaban, Ph.D., the program uses a mix of evidence-based techniques. Included is a cognitive therapy called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), tools to alleviate nightmares, peer support, and evidence-based mindfulness techniques such as yoga nidra and meditation.
Running into a burning building rarely triggers PTSD, Balaban said. Firefighters train for those risks. The risks and shocks they can’t control are the ones that may overwhelm them.
One risk factor for PTSD, said Balaban, is an unsupportive community. This is very true in the emergency services. If a firefighter or police officer’s peers and superiors adhere to the “suck it up, don’t be a wuss” school of thought, then that person’s risk for developing PTSD goes up.
Balaban wishes more departments took the BFD’s approach.
Former Brattleboro Fire Chief and part-time Sheriff’s Deputy, David Emery, Sr., looks at the continuum of on-the-job stressors as a gas can.
It’s like having a one-gallon gas can at the back of your mind, he said. Every day, stressful experiences pour in. If a firefighter isn’t careful, and that container isn’t emptied regularly, it overflows.
“Your training kicks in to do your job,” he said. “PTSD kicks in after.”
Emery served in the BFD from 1970 until 2007. He became Chief in 1989.
In the early years, many bosses believed in the “if you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen” method of stress management, Emery said. They were the World War II generation. They dealt with painful experiences by burying them.
Turning to alcohol to relieve stress was common, he said.
Emery said he and other firefighters recognized that their peers struggled with the scars of former calls. They formed what Emery called a volunteer, peer-led support program, which he characterized as precursor to EAP (Employee Assistance Program).
On-the-job stress for police officers differs from firefighters’, Emery continued. Everyone loves firefighters. Not so much police.
“When I was a firefighter, I could let someone’s house burn to the ground and they’d thank me,” Emery said. “As a police officer, I give someone a $100 speeding ticket and I’m the biggest asshole on the face of the planet.”
Animosity coming from the very community one has sworn to serve wears on a person, he said. How many jobs require a bulletproof vest? Putting on one’s uniform in the morning can raise an officer’s stress level all on its own.
“We all know that this could be the last day we go home,” he said of both police and fire departments.
The experiences that finally overflow the gas container don’t have to be major, like the September 11 terrorist attacks, he said. It could be the kid with a fishhook stuck in his eyeball.
Emery shutters. Yes, he said. That was a difficult call.
Early detection is one of the best tools to prevent PTSD, he said. Once a person recognizes their stress, they can act, get help, manage it.
“And it’s okay, you don’t have to be that macho tough guy,” he added.
Emery never appreciated the stress of family members until he retired, said the husband and father of three. Emery’s daughter lives in northern Vermont. His two sons live in Brattleboro. One is a firefighter, the other a police officer.
Early in the morning of the Brooks House fire in April 2011, Emery, now retired, stood behind the police tape watching the inferno. Instead of directing the firefighting effort, he was just another bystander.
He heard the call — one firefighter unaccounted for.
“My heart was falling out of my chest,” he remembers.
The firefighters survived the Brooks House, Emery said, but standing by helplessly is a killer.
In a small community like Brattleboro, the stakes are high for emergency personnel. Chances are, when the tone sounds, they know someone connected to the tragedy.
Firefighter Paul Sherburne moved to Brattleboro from St. Johnsbury, where he was a firefighter for five years. After nine years in Brattleboro, he said, he’s lucky that he doesn’t know as many people as some of the crew who grew up in Brattleboro.
When he first started in the fire service, he said, people just dealt with things. Speaking up about something upsetting could get a person branded a “sissy.”
“Every year, it’s gotten progressively more open,” he said.
The whole department understands what signals and signs to look for, Sherburne said. They look out for each other.
Chief Bucossi and Assistant Chief Peter Lynch are great, he says. The department debriefs after every tough call. The chief and assistant chief constantly check in, even on the weekends. Bucossi “really gets PTSD” and pushes the guys to get help.
Sherburne shakes his head, “The guy’s going to think I’m sucking up.”
Still, said Sherburne, a little feeling of taboo remains. No one want to be the first to say, “This was hard.” Once someone does, everyone else will follow. But it’s still uncomfortable being first.
Firefighters are trained to take bad situations and make them better, he said. Sometimes though...
“There’s definitely things that echo,” Sherburne said.
Talking in a group helps, he continued. Hearing the situation from another’s perspective can provide answers to questions you’re asking yourself. Sometimes, he said, it “helps you realize you did everything you could.”
“But convincing yourself of that is a challenge,” Sherburne said.
Firefighter George Allen joined the department last year. He started as a volunteer firefighter in Putney in 2010.
PTSD? On the job stress? Yes, they’re part of the job, Allen said without hesitation. That’s why firefighters must talk about their struggles.
“We see stuff that most people should not have to see,” he said.
Allen said Bucossi and Lynch talked to him about preventing PTSD from day one. He said he’s been on “some bad calls” that prompted him to talk to his superiors. He hasn’t used EAP.
“I’m sure in my career at some point it’ll be something that I need,” Allen said.
Allen finds his post-call tasks helpful for cooling down: Cleaning his gear. Putting away equipment. Restocking the trucks.
He also likes sharing dinner with fellow firefighters and when his co-workers’ families visit.
Bucossi said the moments that catch a firefighter off guard may seem random but they feel personal.
He’ll never forget the morning after the Brooks House caught fire.
The sun had just come up, Bucossi recalls. The light struck the storefront windows on the burned building’s first floor. For the first time, Bucossi saw the two feet of water filling the businesses.
He thought, “Oh damn, what have we done? We just destroyed a whole downtown block.”
Wait? What? No, a fire destroyed the Brooks House. The fire department kept the flames from spreading to other buildings. Firefighters helped get the residents out safely. And...
Bucossi shakes his head. It felt like a failure.
“We all take it very personal when we don’t save a building, don’t save a house,” he said. “So even the simplest things will wear on you.”
Bucossi said his reaction to the Brooks House fire is part of being a firefighter. And sometimes those reactions are complex. So the department must remain open to discussing their experiences — good, bad, and ugly.
“These guys — and women — are great. It’s a shame to waste that by ignoring something that can be managed,” Bucossi said. “Deal with [stress] upfront and don’t let it fester.”