PTSD in the Fire Service: There’s No Rank Immunity

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By: Linda Green, Guest Blogger

It was a great career. It did not end the way I had envisioned it.

Fifteen months before I retired as an Assistant Chief with the California Department of Forestry (CDF), while20170306_PTSD all signs not visible listening to radio traffic on the scanner, I heard the on-duty battalion chief request an additional chief officer to respond to a vegetation fire.

Within the hour, I was at scene and met up with the BC to transition command. He told me that some firefighters had just been overrun by fire, and that they were in their fire shelters.

The next hour was a blur of activity between the rescue of the crew, ordering a large-scale evacuation, and ordering enough equipment and personnel for what I felt the potential was…

Before I go on, a bit of background

I’m Linda Green, and I’m that former Assistant Chief. I am honored to be here. Not just because Chief Avsec has so graciously allowed me to share my story, but because I’m a PTSD survivor. This is my story of how I got there.

My career started 30+ years ago, when I signed on to be a seasonal firefighter with CDF to help pay my way through college. Though I struggled with college life at a major university, I discovered that I was good as a firefighter. When I saw what the department had to offer, I was hooked, and started to pursue the “brass ring”: A career in the fire service.

I changed schools to study fire science, attended seminars, even became an EMT before it was the thing to do. I took written tests, physical assessment panels (yes, sometimes failing), and suffered through oral boards.

20170306_PTSD I've got your back

“Don’t worry. I’ve got your back.”

Finally, though, I made Fire Apparatus Engineer. After graduating from the Academy, I went to work in Fresno County in the Mid-Valley Fire Protection District, via a contract agreement with CDF.

When I promoted to Fire Captain, I moved north to work at one of the inmate firefighting camps. After a few years of that, I transferred back to station life, and spent the next dozen years continuing to learn my craft. I went back to school and earned my Fire Officer certificate, and then finished my college education to obtain a Bachelor’s Degree.

I loved being a station captain, but eventually creaky knees got me thinking it was time for a change, and so I tested for and eventually promoted to Battalion Chief in the same battalion I had worked as a captain.  After several years there, I finally decided to take one more step, and promoted to Assistant Chief.

Back to the fire and our injured firefighters

Our Unit Chief called for an update. I knew he would also want news on the crew, who had been rescued by then, so I drove over to where they were being treated prior to transport to the hospital.

I knew the first injured firefighter I saw. Two others were by the helicopter, already receiving treatment from the REACH flight crew. The fourth injured was a fire captain I’d worked closely with at a near-by station. I’ve known him for years, fought a lot of fire with him. And he was seriously hurt. The injuries reminded me of the man who was hit riding a motorcycle accident that I saw yesterday. He needed immediate care.

When the flight medic walked up to him, I stepped away. I still had that phone call to make to the Chief, and the fire was picking up speed.

The descent to hell

20170306_Peggy Sweeney

Founder of Grieving Behind the Badge. “Changing the way first responders and their families cope with grief”

Several weeks later, the on-going insomnia drove me to the doctor. I left the office with a Rx for sleep medicine. Unbeknownst to me, she referred me to a therapist.

Initially diagnosed with acute stress, we spent the winter working on those issues. By spring I was feeling better. As the grass turned brown again, and thoughts turned towards another fire season, I started to feel unsettled.

I drove through the burn scar of a different fire from the previous summer. I noticed the thick grass crop and the brush skeletons and then, suddenly filled with extreme anxiety, I wanted to escape from the truck.

The sound of fireworks over the 4th of July weekend drove me batty.

The diagnosis changed to PTSD.

Things continued to get worse, as the paranoia kicked in. Finally, in mid-August, after a week-long panic attack, I took a medical leave from work.  I needed to heal.

A few months later, I was describing a situation I had found myself in during a session with my EMDR counselor.

“After I left the injured firefighters, I was driving through one of the neighborhoods that was about to be overrun by the fire. At the end of a cul-de-sac I realized I was in front of a pre-school. Glad to not have to worry about evacuating it that Saturday, it suddenly dawned on me that that meant the children were at home, scattered around the community, and that they were in danger!”

Suddenly, I felt a wave of claustrophobia sweep over me. My counselor looked at me and said flatly, “That was a panic attack.”

Claustrophobia sounds less harmful. That was not my worst panic attack, by far. Insomnia, my first recognizable 20170306_PTSD signs and symptomssymptom was—and still is—my constant companion. The bone-crushing headaches have abated for now, but I know if I don’t take care of myself, they will return.

So why put myself out there in the world of the Internet?  I only knew one actual person who had a post-traumatic stress injury, and it wasn’t fair to bug him 24/7, so I went searching. For any kinds of injuries, the auto accident lawyers in San Antonio can be contacted.

When I was struggling, I found hope out there in the various blogs, chats and Facebook groups that I found.  I also discovered there are a lot of people out there suffering. So, if I can offer hope to someone else, then I’m all in.

About the Author

Linda Green worked for the California Department of Forestry & Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) for over 32 years. Starting as a seasonal firefighter straight out of high school, she worked up through the ranks of Fire Apparatus Engineer, Fire Captain, Battalion Chief and Assistant Chief. She served on several instructional cadres at the local, region and state level. She worked in the Plans Section and was an Incident Safety Officer for one of CAL FIRE’s Type 1 Incident Management Teams.

Still working on her recovery, Linda has retired from the department. She volunteers time with the First Responder Support Network at their PTSD in-house treatment retreat.

She lives in northern California with her husband, three dogs and a cat.

See Past Posts on PSTD and Firefighters

A Firefighter’s Struggle with PTSD

PTSD: My new “friend”

PTSD and Firefighters: Let’s make 2017 the year we all understand it better

About Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

Battalion Chief (Ret.) Robert Avsec served with the men and women of the Chesterfield County (VA) Fire and EMS Department for 26 years. He’s now using his acquired knowledge, skills, and experiences as a freelance writer for and as the “blogger in chief” for this blog. Chief Avsec makes his home in Cross Lanes, WV. Contact him via e-mail, [email protected].