We all have had rough shifts. Maybe it was only one call. Alternatively, perhaps you have had months of nothing but the worst. Maybe you are looking back over a career full of bad calls. As a firefighter, it is your job to step in and help people in situations that might be the worst moment in their life. However, what happens when the call is over, and your shift is done? You can’t just drop the images alongside your boots and walk away. Deciding how to process those tough calls can make or break you.

Not all Kitty Cats in Trees

You can usually find a comic strip that illustrates a crew of firefighters all gazing into a tree, with a little cat stuck way up top. This silly image could not be farther from the truth. Some departments respond to fire calls, others to fires and MVC’s. Still, others deal with medical emergencies.

Firefighters witness the destruction of a family’s home, carry unconscious people from a burning building, help a burn victim to the stretcher, and use heavy equipment to extricate a person trapped in their car. These are not images rehearsed on a tv show. There are no commercials and no rewind options. The images, sounds, and smells are experienced in real time and not forgotten.

Drown Your Sorrows

Everyone has a different coping mechanism. For some, immersing themselves in a hobby like fishing or carpentry can help them stay balanced through difficult times. Many turn to exercise and sports to sweat away bad feelings and thoughts. Still many turn to more destructive habits, like gambling or drinking.

Enjoying a drink with your crew after a shift is not a problem. Making a habit of getting that drink or using that drink to cope with your days is, however, an issue. Any coping mechanism can become a negative thing if the underlying emotions are left unaddressed. However, the potential for alcohol to become a negative in your life is much more a reality than hitting the gym too often.

It’s a Family Affair

Part of the enduring strength of the fire service is the strong bond and brotherhood that is found in departments across the nation. The very nature of this job demands that each member can depend on the other like family, even with their very life. With the unusual work schedules and extreme amounts of overtime, it is a natural occurrence that fire “families” are established. Spouses of those in the fire service benefit from having relationships with fellow spouses that understand the missed birthdays, canceled dates, and sleeping at home while everyone else is awake. It is a healthy and vital part of being in the fire service.

A less positive trait found in many departments is the prevailing attitude of “never let them see you cry.” It is a tough job that requires tough people. This approach can create a sense that you can never fully let your guard down. One way that many cope with those negative feelings is to encourage getting together for a drink. For some this becomes a ritual. Drinking has a long-standing history within the fire service brotherhood. In some places, it is viewed as a perfectly acceptable way to manage those tough calls. 

It’s Just One Drink

Many people do not see the danger in drinking to ease through life’s trials. The danger lies in the fact that alcohol is addictive. It is damaging. On many levels. It causes physiological changes; it can cause or exacerbate disease processes; alcohol can lead to aggressive, reckless, and abusive behavior. Marriages break, kids are hurt, and careers are ended.

Using alcohol to “unwind” or settle down after a rough call can lead to a very dark place. Anything can become a crutch, but not many things have the destructive capabilities of alcohol.

Healthy Alternatives

It is important to find healthy ways to process those tough calls. Moreover, it is equally as important to share a bond with others who can understand your thoughts and experiences. Be proactive with your coworkers and come up with alternatives to drinking. Find others who share hobbies and interests like fishing, working out, playing basketball, or working on cars. Get involved in church or community programs. Make time to actively be with your family.

Do these alternatives take work? The answer is yes. However, try it out and give it a shot. The benefits far outweigh the risks of slipping into the habit of making alcohol your go-to after a rough shift.

Mark W Lamplugh Jr

Mark W Lamplugh Jr

Frontline Executive Director

Mark Lamplugh is a fourth-generation firefighter and former captain with the Lower Chichester (PA) Fire Company. He is the Chief Executive Officer with 360 Wellness Inc. (www.360wellness.org) and a Executive Director of the Frontline program with Sprout Health Group (www.frontlinerehab.com). Lamplugh is also nationally recognized in Crisis Stress Intervention through the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress. He has helped hundreds of firefighters, police officers, veterans, EMS personnel, and civilians nationwide find help for addiction, alcoholism, PTSD, and mental health support. He can be reached for comment at mark@360wellness.org.