The compounding effect of trauma in the fire service

by Sam Roy - Firefighter, City of Huntington

“Nobody had really focused on our trauma and how our job is different…  We’re like the dry sponge in the sink that the faucet is dripping on. At first it’s not that bad. But …after a while, that water is running off that sponge. You can only contain so much.”

– Sam Roy, Firefighter, City of Huntington

The very first call I remember that had a big impact on solidifying my decision to be a firefighter was the day I got my one year.

We got a call about a 4-year-old boy who was choking. He was ill and had some congestion. And he’d been eating fruit loops. This had created a ball in his throat. I remember walking in and the look on his face. He was terrified. Right then, he coughed and up comes this horrible mess. I did nothing. He did all of it.

But being able to sit there and comfort him, I thought this is it. This is where I want to be. I remember pulling my first victim out of a house and getting this sense of accomplishment. There was a pride in my career that I’d never experienced before.  

There have been many others over the years. Every day, people call us with a problem. And they trust us to take care of that problem. And to me, that's a great honor. I can’t think of another career that I could do that would make an impact like we are now.

On the job, if you can name it, we've had it. We respond to all kinds of calls.

And It’s odd sometimes what will and won’t affect you. Maybe not right away. But down the road, you’re going to have to deal with it. I know this from personal experience.

Dealing with stress

When I started in the fire service, mental health was talked about, but it was kind of in the other room. It wasn’t the main focus. I remember we had a cardiac arrest in a parts store. I came back, and I asked, “Do we get to know if that guy made it?” And they responded, “We have no idea.”

Later that day, the captain, asked, “Are you all right?” I said, “Yeah, Captain, I’m fine.” He says, “All right, cool.” And away we went.

You were told, “You didn’t cause the problem. You’re just there to help. Try to remember that.” You just had to deal with it. And if you couldn’t deal with it, there’s a number on the fridge that you can call and go talk to somebody.

You had to learn to deal with your problems your own way. Figure out what you have to do – whether it’s a hobby, whether you just need to drink a little more, whether you need to go fishing. Figure it out.

Now through the Compass Program, I’ve become more aware of what bothers me. So I say, “Hey, this is going to bother me. Let’s figure it out.”

The calls that stay with you

There have been some calls that have made a lasting impression on me. That little boy choking was the first moment I realized there are things that are going to affect me.  And I should probably prepare for this.

There was the young man who was hit by a semi-truck on the way to his first day of work at the hospital. It didn’t bother me at the time, but later on it did.

There was a call for a cardiac arrest that turned out to be a 3-year-old boy who had been abused to the point where he succumbed to his injuries. He was dead on arrival.

That was the hammer for me. I use the analogy of a nail that's been hit a few too many times. It’s bent a little bit here and bent a little bit there. And then somebody comes with a sledgehammer and hits that nail and now it’s just mangled.

That was the call for me – that first blow. I made it through a year of dealing with this issue – the nightmares, the anxiety. And I convinced myself I was okay. I was doing better. I was fine. Then I got a call from the prosecutor’s office to be the lead witness for the case. So there I was a year later and they’re showing the autopsy pictures. And it was like I was there again.

We had numerous fire deaths in 2020. It was a rough year – aside from the pandemic.

We got a call about a fire on 28th Street. It was a father and three children and we didn’t have confirmation that the kids were home. We got the majority of the fire knocked down and the deputy asked me to go in and sift through the rubble.

As it turned out, the kids were home. We found the 3-year-old and the 8-year-old. Investigators found the 2-year-old later.

The end of that story was written before we even got our tones at the fire station. That one weighed on me. Still does. There wasn’t anything we could have done. Their fate was sealed before we got there.

Looking back that’s probably been the roughest.  

Before Compass

Before Compass, my main coping mechanism was alcohol. And it worked. It worked well. I had a few beers and let that mellowness fall over me and then I was back to normal.

It was really effective, but at a cost. The cost was my relationship with my family.

I was a pretty happy drunk. But it got to the point where I developed a startle reflex. We have a rule in the house: Don’t scare dad. No jumping out and scaring dad. I can’t handle it.

If I was getting testy. If I was getting irritated, my kids would bring me a beer. That’s pretty sobering, pretty discouraging that my 3-year-old could pick up on when I was having a bad day. And he knew that that was the medicine.

As a result of the education from Compass – and the peer support and the acceptance by the job for better mental health – I’ve become more aware of what bothers me. So I know that I need to talk to somebody, mediate or address it in some way.  

The day, the week or the month after

We had a structure fire in West End, and it was just a 2-story home.

We get there and there were toys all over the front porch, a car in the driveway. We’re doing a 360, looking around. We were the third truck in. And they said we’ve got to search that second floor, they can’t find the stairs.

I grabbed a ladder and we made our way around trying to figure out where we’re going to go in. Old houses in Huntington have been cut up and divided over the years. So the stairs might not be where you think they’re going to be. We get up there and I know in my mind I’m going to find somebody. I know I’m going to get in here and there’s going to be somebody in there.

I searched the room. And then I searched again. I made my way to the hallway and I ran into one of my co-workers. He asked, “Got anything? I can’t find anybody.”

I search again to make sure. Nothing. So we say, “Let’s bail out.”

We’re good. We got this fire out. We’re all right. And nobody was home. The kids were with the babysitter, parents were at work.

On the drive home the next morning – I get off at 7 – it hits me like a truck. I start welling up with tears. I’m trying to figure out what in the world is going on. And I called Steve – he’s kind of my go-to.

We talked for a minute, and then I told him, “I just had it in my mind I was going to find a kid. And I didn’t want it to be like that other fire. And I don’t know why all of a sudden I’m feeling it.”

He said, “Well, of course you thought you were going to find a kid. All of us did. But you were resilient, you still did your job, still went in there, you searched the room three times… Nobody was hurt and everybody went home. Now you’re trying to process it. This is a good thing.”

Relying on the program

Compass is like having a small maintenance dose of medicine. But also having a panic button at the same time. If things get bad, I can hit this panic button.

At the beginning, nobody knew what to do. Nobody ever had a dedicated staff and facility and program dedicated just to our wellness. That was a very unfamiliar thing. We hate change. But we also hate the way things were. We started realizing that this is a pretty good thing. It was the Compass program that introduced me to meditation and mindfulness. That was life-changing. My wife does it, my kids do it.

Everybody’s PTSD manifests differently. Mine is in anxiety and my mind goes a million miles an hour. And our Compass counselor was really helpful in processing that.

No one really understands what the trauma is like with us. They’ve done all kinds of studies on military and veterans. And these guys go over, see horrible things, come home and need to process it.

Nobody had really focused on our trauma and how our job is different. We’re like the dry sponge in the sink that the faucet is dripping on. At first it’s not that bad. But it starts to get a little saturated and after a while, that water is running off that sponge. You can only contain so much.

When  I first came on, PTSD is what veterans had. Or it was this atrocious, horrible thing that somebody saw and it was this one incidence that caused this person PTSD.

It wasn’t a compounding thing like we know what it is today. I probably would still be drinking, I would probably still have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. And my family would ultimately be the ones that have to suffer for that.

I give my wife a lot of credit for being my rock. There’s no telling where I could have been without her support and the support of the Compass program.

Going back out is what makes it better, though. If I just sit at home, I’m left to my own thoughts. And that’s the worst place you could be – in your own mind. Going back out the next day is how I get better. Continuing to try to make a difference, continuing to serve and help where I can.

Sam Roy is a firefighter with the City of Huntington, WV.

If you or a colleague are struggling, call or text 988 for anonymous support from the National Suicide And Crisis Hotline.

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