What does it really mean when someone says ‘I’m OK’? They’re probably not.
Telling my members, my wife and myself that I was OK worked for a while, then it all caught up with me on an incident scene
By Zack Bonnema
We have all said and heard those words around the fire station. But what does it really mean when someone says “I’m OK”? More often than not, what it really means is “I’m not OK” or “I don't want to talk about it.”
How do we break the stigma at the station level that it's OK to not be OK? I wish there was a simple answer to that question.
“It’s the buildup that we don’t see coming”
Some things that I have tried include talking with our chaplain and just getting up in front of the whole department to talk openly about my struggles. I thought breaking down at a call in front of all the people who were on the scene was hard, but that was nothing compared to getting up in front of other members and talking about it. Even with this being my own department, which I talk in front of all the time, this was different.
But why was it different? Because we in the fire service are supposed to be strong, never show emotion, but I knew there would be emotion in what I was going to say.
After I opened up to our members, I had a lot of people thank me for doing so, saying they were also not 100% and just didn't know how to ask for help or how to ask someone to talk about it with them.
We all knew when we signed up for this job that we were going to see some bad stuff. But we don't want to talk about the bad stuff, even when we go on bad call after bad call. It's the buildup of calls like this that we don't see coming.
“I think I’m OK …”
In my case, it all started with getting called to a neighboring city to assist on a drowning call of a young person. I got done with the call and, yes, I was a little shaken, but like so many times before, I said the words “I'm OK.” I had a little trouble sleeping that night but that was it.
A week later, we were called for a missing child. My wife and I were out, so we headed home so I could respond to help at that call when the neighboring city got called for a plane crash. I was less than three minutes from that scene and could see the smoke, so I headed there instead, not knowing what I was going to get myself into.
When I arrived on scene I geared up, I got my orders from command to get a count on survivors and casualties. I then heard my own department’s radio traffic that they found our missing child in a lake and CPR had been started. As much as I wanted to listen to that and help my people, I had a job to do at the scene of this plane crash, so my radio was taken off scan.
After seeing what I saw and helping on that scene for about five hours, I was cleared by command so I went home. My wife asked how I was doing. My reply was something like, “I think I'm OK, but I don't really know what to say or do.”
“Still no red flags for my own mental state”
After talking a bit, I kissed her and said goodnight and went to warm up dinner. It was spaghetti. As soon as I opened to container and saw it, I knew I couldn't eat it.
I started checking in with the members from my department to see how they were doing. Never really paying attention to how I was doing, I just went into leadership mode of helping my crews and helping coordinate a critical-incident stress debriefing (CISD) for our department. I wasn't sleeping and really wasn't eating but still no red flags went up for me and my own mental state.
A few days after my department’s CISD, I went to the one for the plane crash and saw the pain on people's faces. I was still not really dealing with my own feelings, rather checking on other people.
At this point, I was starting to sleep and eat again, but my mind was still all over the place. I was forgetting stuff, not staying focused, and being very quiet and closed off. But still I kept saying “I’m OK.”
“I was done. I couldn’t be there anymore”
Then five days after the debriefing, I was on my way to the fair with my family when we got called to an MVA, so I stopped at the station to get on the truck.
Upon arrival, it didn't look bad. It seemed like it would be a quick call and I’d be back to the station soon and on the road to the fair with my family once again.
I made my way to one car that was on its roof. The driver wasn't responding so I crawled inside to check for a pulse. Once I saw them, I knew there was nothing we could do. It wasn't until I exited the vehicle and told everyone to get a trap over the car that I froze up and couldn't talk. I just made my way to the command vehicle, and with tears coming out uncontrollably, I told them that I was done. I couldn’t be there anymore. I just sat in the truck.
While crying, I called my wife, still back at the station, and said for the first time, “I'm not OK. I need to come back and talk.”
When I got back to the station, my wife hugged me and said, “I love you and I know you want to go home, but we are not leaving until you talk to the chaplain,” already waiting for me. I can't thank my wife enough for saying those words to help me get on the right track again.
The next day, after talking with the chaplain and my wife, a neighboring fire chief and my fire chief stopped in at my house, and we had one of the best, most honest talks I have ever had with them and my wife about mental health and the trauma that we experience in this job.
About a week later, we did a department-wide after-action review about the MVA and the drowning call. After we went through the presentation in our training room and everything was wrapping up, I finally got the courage to stand up in front of the entire department to ask if anyone has ever seen someone's bucket overflow. No one answered so I said that I have; it was my bucket that everyone else got to see overflow. I then explained what I went through and how I was talking with my wife, the chaplains and some close friends. This was for me one of the hardest things to do, even though I was talking about a lot more stuff with my wife. I learned that day how hard it is to stand in front of the fire department and tell the real story about me – not just say I'm OK, but talk about not sleeping, eating, not being considerate, mood swings and just closing myself off from others.
“Please, talk to anyone”
I know I'm not an expert or a doctor, but from one firefighter to another, we can all do better to make it known that it’s OK to not be OK, and it's OK to talk about feelings or cry. I thought I knew about mental health and that I was strong, that was until the day my bucket got overloaded and everything caught up with me. So please, talk to your significant other, friends, coworkers or anyone you feel comfortable with because we need to do a better job taking care of our people. It will make you a better person, better firefighter and better significant other.
About the Author
Assistant Chief of Training Zack Bonnema has been with the Chaska (Minnesota) Fire Department for 12 years. He has been an instructor at the county’s fire academy and throughout the state for the last 10 years. Bonnema has an associate degree in fire science.