Constable: Firefighters don't have to carry emotional burden alone

  • A firefighter takes a rest at the scene in Des Plaines where a fire claimed the lives of four children and their mother Wednesday morning.

    A firefighter takes a rest at the scene in Des Plaines where a fire claimed the lives of four children and their mother Wednesday morning. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Firefighters gather outside a house in Des Plaines where a fire killed a woman and four children Wednesday.

    Firefighters gather outside a house in Des Plaines where a fire killed a woman and four children Wednesday. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 1/30/2021 4:21 PM

A solitary firefighter might have the grim task of carrying a dead child down a smoke-filled stairwell. But that firefighter doesn't have to carry the resulting emotional burden alone.

"I like to encourage peer support every day," said Tom Howard, a suburban firefighter and executive director of the Illinois Firefighter Peer Support Team, which was founded in the belief that no emergency responder "would have to go through pain or suffering alone."

 

Firefighters throughout the suburbs, many of whom responded in support roles to Wednesday's horrific fire in Des Plaines, say their hearts are with their brothers and sisters in the Des Plaines Fire Department who battled the blaze that killed Citahaly Zamiodo, 25, and her children -- 6-year-old Renata P. Espinosa, 5-year-old Genesis A. Espinosa, 3-year-old Allizon V. Espinosa and 1-year-old Grace Espinosa.

"We can tell coming out of the door if something sounds serious," said Howard. "The best scenario is you meet the family out front and they say everybody got out. But we always go in there with the assumption that someone is in there."

Firefighters might arrive at a scene of chaos and horror, but they have extensive training and a checklist to follow.

"You're in the mindset, 'I'm going to work,'" Howard said. "It's typically very methodical. Even if someone is screaming over there, I've got to do A, B and C."

As the training of firefighters has improved, so have the efforts to help with their mental health after the smoke has cleared.

"The saying used to be, 'It's part of the job,' but now people are understanding it's OK to have feelings. There are wounds that aren't seen," said Kevin Chapman, a Bartlett firefighter and member of the peer support team. Chapman said he got help dealing with traumatic events early in his career, including being on a team that went to work after Hurricane Katrina.

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"A brother or sister can come to you and say, 'I need help.' It's a good thing people are being more open about it," Chapman said. It wasn't always the case. "I worked with some old salty dogs who had demons."

Suicide and substance abuse remain a problem for some first responders.

"We train for rescues and realize that death is part of the job," said peer team member Dan Sullivan, who retired as a firefighter/paramedic in Westmont and Downers Grove and now serves as a chaplain for the Westmont Fire Department and Rush Copley Medical Center in Aurora. "We shouldn't enter a burning building alone. Neither should we shoulder a burden like that alone."

The Illinois Firefighter Peer Support Team has an extensive outreach program and plenty of online help at ilffps.org, and it has done training in 18 states, Howard said. That support is similar to the effort of firefighters in action.

"Fortunately, we work in teams," Howard said, explaining how everyone's job -- whether forced entry, search or ventilation -- supports another with the idea of working toward the best result. "If you know you have somebody in there, everyone is doing search."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

There are days when firefighters spend time training, doing maintenance, responding to false alarms and cooking chili. But they know that routine can change in a heartbeat, with lives, including their own, on the line and the outcome sometimes out of the firefighters' control.

"I hate to say this, but you can't save them all," said peer team member Chuck Wehrli, a retired Naperville Fire Department captain who deployed at ground zero with the FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Team in the aftermath of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

After a traumatic event, the recommendation is that within 10 days firefighters reach out to get the help they need, said Howard, adding that a mantra is "listen, relate, validate."

"In the past, we pretended it didn't bother us," Howard said. "It's got to be OK to say, 'That really bothers me.' We're all fixers. Unfortunately, we can't fix that. The guys are just going to have to hurt."

Adding to the trauma of witnessing tragic events is the second-guessing that firefighters can do.

"The what-ifs?" Sullivan said. "Those things can seep into our brain and work us over. Thankfully, there are more tools now to help people process."

Fatal fires involving children can be more difficult to handle.

"We're all parents for the most part. After the call is done and we transition back to our personal lives, we need to look out for each other," said Ryan Lettieri, a Rolling Meadows firefighter/paramedic and father to two daughters. "Immediately, you're focused on the event. Then you move from processing it as a professional to processing it as a person."

Just as firefighters get the latest in protective gear to keep them safe from toxins and injuries, today's firefighters need to take advantage of the mental health care available.

"We have to take care of ourselves mentally," Lettieri said, noting that it's not just about an individual firefighter. "We owe it to the public to be at our sharpest all the time."

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