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Averting a Crisis by Stepping Up

December 6, 2016
Captain Michael Morse, retired, Providence Fire Department

Captain Michael Morse, retired, Providence Fire Department

What Do You Do When…

I woke today to a news report that hit home: A firefighter from my department was under investigation – impaired while on duty. It got to me, so I made a phone call.

Now, we all know it is supposed to be a big secret when somebody succumbs to his or her addictions because privacy is protected. And besides, we of the Brotherhood protect our own, so we’re told. Many still believe it. At worst, we all play along that nobody knows who is struggling.

Maybe in a perfect world “brothers” don’t talk, but not in the world I inhabit.

One call, and I learned right away who the unfortunate firefighter was. So much for discretion. Firefighters do talk. When gathered around the coffee pot, we’re like a bunch of old timers.

We gossip about this and that until something juicy comes along, like one of us becoming not one of us, overnight.

The drama factor ramped up as more of the story unfolded: the individual was sent home from his shift and faces possible disciplinary action. Sometimes we firefighters are good at burying our heads in the sand. For example, we might say he simply had a bad day and made a very bad decision and even look for him to return to duty soon. But truthfully, it’s quite likely that some of us had seen signs of his problem or were aware that things just weren’t right with him.

Reaching out to a Fellow Firefighter: Ideal If Not Real

active firefighters and first responders

The Brotherhood is not all it’s cracked up to be when an individual’s weakness gets exposed. The sad truth is that when a firefighter cannot control his impulses – disease or weakness – the brothers fade away. It matters not that addiction has long been classified as a disease. As the brothers recoil from perceived weakness, they are far from sharing clinicians’ belief that fighting the disease of addiction is heroic.

For the substance user in the best-case scenario, one inevitable byproduct of addiction is loneliness. When someone’s substance secret is exposed in dramatic fashion – a firing, a reprimand, a flare-up of the gossip mill – the ostracized firefighter goes from lonely to lonely/despondent in a heartbeat.

Despondence, not to mention loneliness, signals that it’s time to reach out. Connecting with a firefighter in trouble could even be lifesaving. But it’s funny that as lifesavers, we so often miss this key opportunity. And it would be the perfect time to enact our “Brotherhood” mythos, showing the injured member that he is not alone.

But it just doesn’t happen that way.

The concept sounds great, the group coming together to assist one of their own, but in reality the group goes their way and the injured member is left to fend for himself.

So what if you are the person struggling with addiction? Suddenly you find yourself at the butt end of your community’s “shunning.” It can be devastating. If you’ve let community abandonment drive you into self-shaming or solitude, you are in a bad place – the comfort zone of the disease. One bit of maturation I’ve been able to work on in recovery is not to take so many things personally. If you can do this, it will serve you well. You may find it helpful to make the distinction that your firefighting brothers are not pushing you away, they’re pushing your disease away.
Most people do not understand addiction. And if they have good fortune in the genes department, they may never understand. To them addiction is a sign of weakness. They may even feel a sense of moral superiority over those of us with addictive tendencies. And lucky for them if their biological truth allows them to feel superior  – we need to forget about it. Because they can’t feel addiction from the inside, they have the luxury of believing that the solution is simple: don’t drink. Or, just drink a little and stop. I once had a well-meaning colleague with the luxury of such simple moral certitude. He tried to explain it to me:

“If you get drunk on four drinks, have three. If you get drunk from ten drinks, have nine.”


Fortunately, Help Is Available.

couple in therapyMany fire departments have implemented a peer-based employee assistance program designed to approach the problem through the culture and to make it easier for departments and captains to encourage healthier responses.

The trick is to get the person who’s suffering to reach out before it is too late. This is where the Brotherhood needs to step up, not after things explode – and someone caught in addiction will explode.

Once the proverbial cat is out of the bag, and our local news is reporting “firefighter impaired while on duty,” the rules change. Now the prospect of saving the firefighter’s career is far more daunting. Public perception is vitally important to most firefighters, and when one of us does something to tarnish our reputation, everything changes.

I know just how uncomfortable it is to confront a person who needs help. I also know just how uncomfortable it feels to be excluded from the group. However, when the life and career of a brother or sister is in jeopardy, a little discomfort is a small price to pay. Your help doesn’t need to be dramatic or carefully planned. Having an intervention at work is a terrible idea.But you can plant a seed, an idea. Even if the person denies, explains, gets angry, you have done your part by bringing the matter up rather than glossing it over. No need to look for heroic rescues – anyone who needs to be confronted about their drinking (or any other addiction that interferes with job performance) is probably going to be in denial. Don’t expect them to agree with you on the spot and get help. In fact, when you say something to them, they may just walk away. But their reaction in that moment does not always give you an accurate read on the impact of your words. If you call out the problem discreetly, you may have planted a seed, a seed that can grow into self-reflection. You’ve offered a lift that might elevate the individual’s thinking pattern.For the addicted, thinking is nothing new, it’s all we do. When we hear honest words from a person we respect, it creates a kind of culture shift within our little bubble. It may put a thought in our head that can transition us from “poor me, poor me, pour me,” to “WHAT THE HELL AM I DOING!”

A positive seed of thought begins growing into the positive thinking that goes on to serve as the bedrock of recovery.

American Addictions Centers partners with national first responder organizations to treat first responders struggling with addictions through The First Responder Lifeline, a program for first responders, by first responders.

To learn about the program, call one of the following dedicated helplines: Police/Corrections 888.972.2704, Fire/EMS888.731.FIRE (3473) or Veterans/Military (888) 902- VETS (8387) or visit the fire services and law enforcement pages online.

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