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Firefighters 'Beating Selves Up' After Tragic Fire Loss

Firefighters 'Beating Selves Up' After Tragic Fire Loss

Seattle firefighters and police stand in front of an apartment in Fremont in which five people died last Saturday, including four children.

The Seattle Times via YellowBrix

June 17, 2010

FREEMONT, WA – The pain, sorrow and sense of loss triggered by Saturday’s Fremont apartment fire is shared not just by those who knew the five victims but by the firefighters unable to save them.

Firefighters who have been “beating themselves up” over their inability to rescue the woman and four children in the burning apartment attended a Tuesday night session in which they shared their feelings with their peers, department officials, a chaplain and a mental-health professional, said Seattle Fire Chief Gregory Dean.

“We’re trying to help show them that the things they’re feeling are normal, but the scenes that they see in the kind of business they’re in are abnormal,” Dean said.

Sessions such as this four-hour “critical incident stress debriefing” have become a routine part of major fire operations.

“These kinds of things help people find the resilience they need to keep moving forward,” said Fire Department Chaplain Joel Ingebritson. “You can talk about the event, talk about your feelings and get at the issue of how do you find your healing point? How do you move on in a safe and healthy way?”

Saving human life is a firefighter’s highest priority. “It carries a deep responsibility to be a firefighter when lives are lost,” Ingebritson said. “And multiplying that loss five times, for any first responder, there’s going to be the sense of what if — what would have happened if I had been able to get through the fire?”

Despite equipment problems firefighters had at the Fremont blaze, Dean said, the heat and smoke were so intense that conditions in the apartment were “unable to sustain life” even before firefighters arrived.

Still, the loss weighs heavily on firefighters.

In a letter to the editor published in The Seattle Times Tuesday, Melinda O’Malley, of Shoreline, wife of one of the firefighters who worked the blaze, urged the community not to blame firefighters for the deaths.

“My husband and his co-workers have also been affected by this event and will carry the pain with them for the rest of their lives,” she said. "They know they did everything they could, yet will agonize over the many ‘what-ifs.’ "

Dean said each firefighter reacts to stress and tragedy differently. Those with small children, for example, might feel an additional layer of sorrow at the loss of the four children in this fire.

Of the 75 firefighters who worked the apartment blaze, all but two have returned to regular service, Dean said. One suffered a leg injury on the way to the blaze, and the other firefighter “is still impacted” by the tragedy and not yet ready to resume work.

Bill Lotz, director of training for the national Federation of Fire Chaplains, said firefighters develop “coping mechanisms” to help deal daily with events that would be major traumas to the average person, such as medical emergencies, car accidents and severe injuries.

“But there are some events that tend to overwhelm even the coping mechanism,” Lotz said. “The loss of five people certainly is one that would test even a seasoned firefighter.”

Lotz, a fire chaplain in the Tri-Cities area and a former firefighter himself, said today’s firefighters have stronger support systems for dealing with the job’s stresses than their predecessors had.

“Twenty-five years ago, you just didn’t talk about it, and we found out that was really damaging,” Lotz said. “If you try to build such a thick skin that nothing matters to you, then you’re no longer a caring person. And you don’t want that kind of person as a firefighter. You want someone who cares.”