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It’s Time to Redefine What it Means to Be Strong AXEMEN: Finding Blue Skies

If the ingredients necessary for a firefighter to maintain a healthy mind, body and spirit were listed on the side of a box full of answers, the words “maintain balance” would be underscored and printed in bold letters. The recipe would likely include a trusted employee assistance program (EAP), mentors, confidants, training, a relevant book list, and lots of prayer. Regardless of the rations, by some measure, the heart of a successful outcome would have to include a personal definition of how to maintain some semblance of resiliency.

It seems that there is a strong trend towards building awareness and a customized approach to managing the compounding challenges of the job. But, what still seems to be lacking in our industry is a program for building a healthy immune system against the attacks on our mind and spirit. Firefighter suicides have now exceeded our annual line-of-duty deaths, and are estimated to be as much as 40% under reported. As great as the outreach programs are, the supportive Facebook posts, magazine ads, and wall posters are still reactive, and may only reach those who have hit rock bottom.

There are a growing number of books and programs focusing on resiliency, but it is not enough. Drafting more stringent policies is not enough. And, introducing more targeted training options is still not enough. Instead, at its core, our industry has to find a way to change our definition of what it means to be a strong and successful officer, leader, and public safety professional.

With a firm resolve, organizations must place the same, or greater, priority on mental health than they do on preparing to manage an incident. This will be harder than it should be. While no one would argue the importance of applying antiseptic and band aid to a wound to keep it from being infected, 92% of us still believe that seeking early treatment for those thoughts that are keeping us up at night is a sign of weakness.

Still, this cultural attitude should reinforce our determination, not dampen it. Success must be defined to include both the art and science of what it means to find balance through some sequence of training, mental health check-ups, assessment tools, and resource sharing. Reformed definitions of what it means to be a “company employee” can no longer mean working long hours without a break; it can no longer mean skipping Little League games because a work project has to get done before your next shift begins; and, it can no longer mean volunteering for every committee a few months before the next promotional exam, simply because success has come to mean that a leader must suffer through a lopsided relationship between his/her work and their family obligations.

Don’t get me wrong, professionalism and our code of brother/sisterhood demands that we rise to the occasion. This can mean missing cherished events and working long, hard hours. But, what it shouldn’t mean is that you are forced to live by a standard that, by its very application, becomes counterproductive to the mission you have sworn to embrace. Put simply, if your mind is out of whack from constant pounding, fatigue may eventually lead to poor performance, reduced morale, and excessive sick/workers’ comp leave; and, that is bad for business.

AXEMEN MC: Chasing Blue Skies

I’ll finish this point by sharing a quick story: A good friend and fellow Fire Chief (new road name: The Professor) and I recently took the opportunity to ride 5,849 miles on a motorcycle trip. We rode from Southern California to Utah on the first day; and to Colorado Springs on the second, where we met up with my brother (Ferg) and two of his riding buddies (Streak and Crash). All are members of the Axemen, an IAFF firefighters-only motorcycle club. From there we traveled to Hutchison, Kansas and joined Ray Ray, Lap Dance, Hammer, and a Prospect. On day three, we toured an amazing salt mine, an air and space museum, and smoked cigars during their club’s bike night, before leaving on a 350 mile ride to Springfield, Missouri. There, we were hosted at two in the morning by the man formally known as “Hollywood,” and his beautiful family. After some morning pancakes, the group of 10 pressed on, picking up roughly 15 more Indiana Axemen about 70 miles outside of Detroit, our final destination.

For the next two days, we hung out at the Motor City Casino and attended a few get-togethers, including a final night party at what was once a funeral home on South Street, but now served as the clubhouse of the founding chapter of the Axemen. As I understand it, over 350 members were registered for the Detroit event; many more than that attended. All wore their leather vests and patches (cuts), most carried a beer and a plate of barbeque, and the smell of cigar smoke floated warmly through the air. The next day, all bikers and their significant others dispersed to different parts of the country, and we were off to Dallas for an Accreditation hearing.

Nice story, but what’s the point? Balance. I’ve been a Fire Chief for 11 of my combined 36 years as a firefighter. And it had been a long time since I had been able to feel the handshake and hug of a “brother” who cared very little about the Professor or me being a senior officer. The stories, jokes, scratching, and laughs were not at all impacted by who I was, or how many bugles I had pinned on my collar. They were just people having fun, replacing the tough memories of the weeks before with new ones they could embellish upon when they got back to their families and firehouses.

Among the other faces that stuck out for me on the trip were those of a number of senior citizens that gathered at the local McDonalds and cafes. It would not be unusual to see three to five retirees in their shorts and tattered ball caps, sipping their coffee and telling their own yarns about the good ole’ days.

As beautiful as the countryside was and as much satisfaction as we got in completing the epic journey, there is no doubt that the best part of the experience focused squarely on the people. I was able to share the experience with my family and friends, and our tribe met a whole host of others that, having only greeted us once, would invite us into their homes, simply because we shared the same patch, and by extension, the same definition of balance and values.

As a Fire Chief, I’ve earnestly preached maintaining work-family balance for the better part of my career. Our management and labor teams have also ensured that our membership has access to some very comprehensive, but reactive mental health/wellness resources, should they be needed. But somewhere along the way I lost the satisfaction that comes with actually having my share of balance.

After a number of days on the open road, my perspectives have shifted (no pun intended) to include more time away with my family and friends. I’m now doing my best to earnestly redefine what it means to be a strong fire officer, not to shirk my duties, but because I believe that it is what is best for my department. Perhaps I will need one less Red Bull (my new road name) to get me going in the morning.

Thus, my advice to others in our profession is to find a pack of golf buddies, car buffs, motorcycle enthusiasts…or a just few friends that like to hang out at the local McDonalds in the morning. Spending time with true friends and family can breathe life into your spirit and make you a better person and employee. Ferg and “Timmy Two Shots” are guiding the Professor and me through the process of starting our own Axemen chapter in California. I expect that my path to resiliency lies just around the next bend.

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