First responders are often affected by post-traumatic stress, or have trouble coping with the tragedies they witness on their jobs.
One year ago, a building at 22nd and Market Street in Philadelphia collapsed during a demolition effort, and fell onto the adjacent building, crushing it. Six people died and 14 were injured in the collapse. Philadelphia firefighter Joe Schulle was part of the rescue efforts, he arrived on the scene in the afternoon to relieve the first response team. Schulle currently serves as president of Local 22, the union for firefighters and paramedics. He says the emotional fallout from tragedies like this is difficult to cope with.
“When I arrived, it looked like, because of the nature of the collapse, it was mainly a recovery effort,” he recalled. “We worked very carefully, in case somebody is alive, and out of respect for the deceased and their family.”
Despite these efforts, something happened that continues to haunt Schulle.
“One of the deceased victims we removed, we had to use cranes to assist us in removing the debris, because of the size and weight of the debris, and one of the victims was caught in the crane when they were removed.”
Schulle is visibly shaken as he talks about this moment during his hours at the site. He says how an incident affects him changes with each situation.
“To some extent, it depends on how you equate it to your own life. My kids are 16 and 13 years old, so it hits me harder when I see kids who are harmed, not that it didn’t bother me before; it just hits me harder now,” he explained.
He says while on duty, firefighters focus on the task at hand, getting a situation under control, saving as many people as possible. “But I think between days and weeks after an incident is when it really starts hitting people, when we reflect.”
With the Market Street building collapse, Schulle’s thoughts keep returning to the young victims. “Their lives were just starting out, and then they were extinguished, and there’s nothing left. “
Despite the difficult nature of their job, firefighters tend not to talk about the emotional impact of their work, said Schulle. “We rarely have very frank conversations about different issues that occur, and that’s problematic.” He said it’s very difficult to talk about these issues.
“We see and deal with things that people shouldn’t see and deal with. People withdraw, people who are usually friendly and engaged, they are keeping to themselves and become very quiet. We see divorces, marital problems, drinking, perhaps drug use, all related to what these guys experience day in and day out.”
Schulle says the fire department’s employment assistance program does provide counseling, but he’d like to see the program be more proactive, and more engaged.
“Right now you first meet in a group, and then when issues come up in that setting, you can see a counselor individually. But when you get a group of people together, nobody wants to show any weakness or a kink in the armor, everybody is pretty much quiet,” he said.
Schulle says counselors should visit fire stations after incidents that might require counseling, and talk to people individually, since firefighters tend to be reluctant to ask for help.
“You almost need somebody to say ‘here is the help, come and get it,” he said.