Diane Schroeder, EFO, BA
Battalion Chief / EMS Chief
Louisville Fire Protection District (CO)
The Importance of Self Care for the Chief
In November 2004, I responded to my first fatal fire. I had almost four years on the job and nearly two years as a paramedic. As soon as we left the station, we knew we had a “good one” you could see the smoke column for miles. On the follow-up report, dispatch said there was a baby inside. Three other children and the mom escaped, but the three-month-old boy who was asleep in his car seat did not. I will never forget finding him and holding his little body.
That was the first time I experienced a Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD) by the Mayflower team. Two things struck me about that experience; 1. As the CISD team went around the room to let the responders talk about the incident, most people spoke about calls over their careers that impacted them; not many spoke of the recent fire. The weight from all the trauma exposure throughout their career these senior guys carried was heartbreaking and profound. 2. There were no chiefs present, not even the battalion chief who responded to the fire.
Over the last 14 years, I have watched the fire service transform the conversation around mental health through peer support, addressing substance use, and educating our brothers and sisters on how to notice the signs when things are starting to spiral. However, death by suicide is still the leading cause of death for firefighters. A white paper published in 2018 by the Ruderman foundation states that in 2017 only 40% of firefighter suicides were reported, indicating that death by suicide is twice as high as those who died in the line of duty. We still have a long way to go and I think chief’s are the lynch pin.
That fatal fire has never left my brain, and throughout my career, I have collected more traumas. Promoting up the ranks made me feel the need to be the “strong one” for my crews, making sure they have a safe space to process the traumatic events, the ear to listen to them, the person to deliver the news to the loved ones of those who transitioned. Ensuring that assessment centers have scenarios involving recognizing a mental health or substance use issue are helpful if the intent is to understand empathy and not just reciting the department policies.
What happens when the Chief’s cup gets full? How are the senior leaders processing their trauma? Are our chief officers so busy taking care of everyone else that they have neglected themselves? How do we make time for self-care? There are no right or wrong answers, but time for the conversation.