Firefighters do hard things.
They train for it, they prepare for it, they steel themselves for the surprises along the way, they celebrate the adventures — and now, more than ever, they are learning to how to navigate the losses that come with the job.
For 10 years, Logan firefighter Nate Thompson has been a key part of a movement to build resiliency among firefighters.
“It’s become a passion for me,” he said. “I am in a position that I can make a difference. I’ve got some training … If I can prevent one more person from trying to hurt themselves or kill themselves or make a bad decision that is going to cost them their careers, then it is worth it.”
Thompson moved into Cache Valley to attend Utah State University in 1990. He obtained his degree and started a small business, but his childhood dream was always there in the background.
“I wanted to be a fireman since I was a little boy,” Thompson said. “I was either going to be a fireman or a garbage truck guy because they both got to ride on the tailboard, and that was where it was at for me.”
In 1995, Thompson moved to Smithfield. When there, he was startled awake in the middle of the night by the shrill wail of an old air raid siren that was long used to call volunteer firefighters to action.
The memory makes him laugh.
“I had no idea what it was; I thought it was like an earthquake, or a bomb,” he said. “So I get up, and I am running around my house, looking, thinking there is something happening — well, I see all these dudes running to the fire station.”
He hadn’t realized that his house was almost kitty-corner from the old Smithfield fire station near 100 North and 100 West. That night, he decided that he wanted to be one of those firefighters running toward the fire.
Thompson first served as a volunteer firefighter, and for the next eight years, he took advantage of every opportunity for training and certification because his ultimate destination was the Logan Fire Department.
During those early years, Thompson said he responded to several 911 calls that brought tragedy to families and even to the emergency medical personnel themselves.
He didn’t have good coping skills in place, he said, and he experienced post-traumatic stress that made itself known in the form of irritability and trouble sleeping. Likewise, he watched as a those same stressors led a captain to make poor decisions that cost him his career.
“I loved that guy dearly, and I was pretty devastated,” Thompson said.
Another captain attempted to end his life — it was becoming apparent that firefighters needed some kind of support.
“We work out; we’re physically fit. We’re ready to fight fire; we’re ready to pull someone out of a car that is munched up,” Thompson said. “So, tell me how it is we spend $4,000 to $5,000 on someone’s personal equipment to keep their bodies safe, their heads safe, their hands safe. But for years, we spent zero dollars on their minds.”
That wasn’t OK with Thompson, and he has a passion for teaching other firefighters how to become more resilient, how to look within and identify their breaking point by putting a numerical label on their stress levels, and ways to bring that number back to zero.
“I love to fight fire; that is what brought me to the job. I learned to love EMS, I went to paramedic school, learned to love helping people with medicals and trauma, but … you can’t do any of those things without a good team, and if my guys aren’t right, then I don’t have a team that is safe and effective,” Thompson said.
The 2009 landslide on Canyon Road that claimed the life of a mother and two children stands out in Thompson’s memory as time when firefighters needed to lean upon one another.
However, Thompson said Logan’s first Critical Incident Stress Management team was assembled just two years before, and its policies were still being developed. He was out of town and did not attend debriefings.
At the time, they were using a model developed by Jeffrey Mitchell and George Everly. During this era, Thompson said some of the traditional debriefing meetings were multi-agency affairs where so many people were there to “spill their guts” that it was just as often counter-productive.
“It was a recipe for disaster,” he said.
However, over the last 10 years, Thompson said CISM has evolved into a much more viable program that was most recently used to help Salt Lake-area firefighters process the loss of former Logan Hotshot firefighter and Draper Battalion Chief Matty Burchett.
Thompson said line-of-duty deaths are rare in Utah, and Burchett’s death left a mark on firefighters all over the Western states. Thompson was among a group of people who visited with the Draper Fire Station and Unified Fire Authority stations one by one, company by company.
He met with firefighters in much smaller groups, bringing together people who worked closely with one another, giving them an opportunity to share how they were affected by Burchett’s death, if they desired.
During brief, focused meetings, CISM teams identify themselves as fellow firemen who care; they explain some of the common stress responses and encourage healthy eating, exercise and good sleep during days off.
They are reassured that increased stress responses are normal for two to three weeks, but after four weeks, it might be time to ask for help, and that is OK too.
And, Thompson said, they are encouraged to watch out for one another and not be afraid to ask questions if it appears someone is struggling.
This newer model acknowledges that people respond to trauma differently, it generally encourages firefighters to be more open and it gives them the resources to seek help on their own, something the original model did not do.
“There are still agencies out there that work under that model … we just now know that because of the firefighter personality, that type of personality that they are, they just don’t really respond well to that format,” Thompson said. “We have had to evolve and adapt and come up with something that is better, and I think we are there, and we have a model that is working, based off the response we get.”