Post Traumatic Growth
At 2018’s FDIC conference I had the opportunity to sit in on Dr. David Griffin’s lecture on Post Traumatic Growth, or PTG. I’m embarrassed to say that I had no idea who Dr. Griffin was before walking into the room that Wednesday morning. When he began telling the story of the Charleston Sofa Super Store fire on June 18, 2007, 1 in which nine firefighters lost their lives, and his role as a pump operator on that fire, I was immediately enthralled and humbled. Dr. Griffin spoke at length about what he went through after the fire, his battles with PTSD, and how he eventually turned that trauma into PTG, starting his Mission.
On September 1, James Geering released his Behind the Shield podcast with Dr. Griffin (which I highly recommend) and after listening to this episode I bought Dr. Griffin’s book, From PTSD to PTG: A Firefighter’s (My) Journey After a Multiple LODD Incident and read it in a day. Granted, it’s a short book coming in around 120 pages in print format, but it’s also a very gripping read.
In the book, Dr. Griffin gives takes the reader on a journey through his trauma, the symptoms of his PTSD, and his eventual realization of and dealing with the problems it was causing him. Dr. Griffin is extremely candid and humble throughout the book; taking full responsibility for his actions and doling out credit to his wife, family, and the professionals that helped him through this dark time.
Be Proactive, Not Reactive
”[If] we utilize our proactive steps of education, mental health programming, continual monitoring, and education on the concept of PTG, we can assist our co-workers in combatting the effects of PTSD.”
Dr. Griffin discusses the importance of changing the fire service culture from one of a BS machismo, “shrug it off,” mentality into a culture that embraces and encourages open communication and support. There must be education from the recruit level all the way to the top and the infrastructure in place to allow people to recognize when they’re having issues and to help them deal with it in a productive, healing way.
“one major incident doesn’t necessarily cause PTSD. It’s often related to a career full of traumatizing emergency responses.”
He writes, “Dr. Tull indicates anywhere between 7% and 37% of firefighters ‘meet criteria for a current diagnosis of PTSD.’ That’s alarming.” Alarming is putting it mildly. The modern realization that PTSD isn’t only caused by a singular traumatic event such as the Sofa Super Store LODD event, but can be brought on by the cumulative effect of years on the job, is a huge advancement in caring for ourselves and our peers. Dr. Griffin points out that any call that bothers you, any arrest, fire fatality, etc. can add to that cumulative trauma, essentially filling a bucket. That bucket will fill over time and you’ll have to find some way to deal with it before the overflow negatively effects you and those around you.
You Gotta Know That You Don’t Know
”You don’t want to find out you don’t have sufficient knowledge or experience on an emergency scene. That should be done in training.”
What stuck with me the most from the FDIC lecture and the book was Dr. Griffin’s description of standing at that pump panel and not knowing what to do, not really knowing his job. He realized he had been in the fire service for a little over two years and had done little to educate himself on his profession and his duties, and on that night, and for years after, he felt the impact of that ignorance.
Dr. Griffin writes throughout the book about his lack of proper training and education in the fire service at the time of the LODD event, pointing out what I feel is one of the major issues afflicting the fire service currently. It’s too easy for guys to take the attitude of, “this is how we’ve always done it,” or, “yeah, I did that once at drill, I’m good.” We must realize it is up to us, as individuals, to take it upon ourselves to take charge of our own education and training and not just lean on what our departments provide. It is not enough to know how, we must know why; there must be a solid mix of technical skills, book smarts, and experience. (Dr. Griffin discusses this point on the Behind the Shield podcast.)
In the book, Dr. Griffin touches on the four levels of mastery from Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman’s book, On Combat, of which, the first level, unconscious incompetence, scares the hell out of me. These are the guys that don’t know what they don’t know. They don’t take the time to research, read, train, take classes, etc. They take every shift, every call for granted. We have to encourage our peers to get out of this stage (or better yet, avoid it all together). Dr. Griffin admits to being in this stage at the time of the Sofa Super Store fire, and thanks to his book, I can imagine exactly how felt that night and I don’t want that for myself or anyone else.
”We must train to the fourth level of mastery; unconscious competence. This indicates you’ve practiced a skill so much, you can perform at a high level in a stressful environment. We must all strive to attain this. We must also remember when we reach the level of unconscious competence, continual learning is necessary.”
For more on diving deeper into knowledge-building on fire service basics, check out my post, The Evolving Fireground – Required Reading.
Find Your Mission
The best way to deal with your trauma, according to the author, is through identifying “the responses that give you the most mental anguish and then be willing to share what you’ve learned.” The act of not only dealing with your trauma (through professional help, family support, etc.) but sharing what you’ve learned with others, resonated with me. I noted in the book as I read, “is this part of my drive to write?” Maybe I’m personally dealing with the cumulative effects my years on the job without fully realizing it. Either way, I agree that it is important to share what you learn so that others, too, may grow and get better. Channel the pain and anger you may feel, let it fuel something positive. Define your purpose, find your Mission.
A Cultural Problem with a Cultural Solution
Suicide rates are on the rise across the population as a whole. In 2015, a staggering 46.8% of firefighters reported having suicidal thoughts with 15.5% admitting to attempting suicide at least once during their career 2. It is encouraging that through people like Dr. Griffin and Dan DeGryse and others that this epidemic is coming more into the mainstream of the fire service, but we must not brush it off as a fad, we must embrace the rising tide and change the culture.
From PTSD to PTG should be mandatory reading for new and experienced firefighters, officers, and chiefs alike. The information contained in this book and the experience of the man that wrote it is priceless and could very realistically save lives. Just as important as the information contained in the book itself is the self-reflection and conversations the book should lead to.
Dr. Griffin’s knowledge and passion are palpable and his ability to get a concept across succinctly is on point. You cannot afford not to spend the $10 (Kindle) or $20 (print) on this book and the hour or two it takes to read it.