Book excerpt: 'Leadership Refined by Fire'

Exploring the dynamics of leading in the firehouse, personal responsibility, customer service, mental health and more


The following excerpt comes from "Leadership Refined by Fire" Chapter 43, "Mental Health," covering PTSD and mental health from a leadership standpoint. As a leader, genuinely caring for those we lead is essential. This care is especially important in watching for mental health issues that may develop in those we lead and helping them see the importance in addressing it.

By John Cuomo

The book explores the dynamics of leading in the firehouse, personal responsibility, customer service, mental health and more.
The book explores the dynamics of leading in the firehouse, personal responsibility, customer service, mental health and more.

It was a gorgeous afternoon. Winter in South Florida can truly be described as a paradise: beautiful blue skies, bright beaming sun, and cool, comfortable temperatures. It almost seems like nothing can go wrong on those days. But unfortunately, that was not the case this day. We received a call for a possible suicide. My stomach knotted up as we headed to the scene, hoping we could help the patient. As we arrived, the police were all over the scene and would not let us approach until they felt it was safe.

A woman had called 911 and told them that her ex-boyfriend was threatening to kill himself with a gun because she broke up with him. When the police finally cleared the scene, they called us in. I walked up and opened the car door. The smell of blood and gunpowder smacked me right in the face. There he was, head slumped over to his left, towards me, blood was splattered all over the inside of the windshield and his eyes open. Looking at his open eyes, strangely, I could see desperation, it looked like his eyes were talking to me, they were screaming for help. From a hole in the side of his head, there streamed what I can only describe as what looked like blood stalactites. We were way too late. This gorgeous day was marred by the terrible loss of a person in so much pain. To this day, I can still see every detail of him in my mind, pictures of a desperate dead man with a hole in the side of his head, and the smell of stale blood and gunpowder, a scene neatly filed in my brain and ready to be recalled at the slightest whiff of anything similar.

The image of this man is just one permanent memory of so many in my brain. I remember an individual who jumped off an eight-story building and whose body, when we went to lift it, felt like his bones and organs had been turned to liquid. Lifting and moving such a person is a jarring nightmare. It disturbs me to this day when I recall it from time to time.

There was the construction worker who stepped on a skylight that cracked. He fell nine stories to a gruesome death. Seeing a body mangled in a position it should never be in is something you just cannot forget.

I still see the frantic looks of several different individuals who cut their wrists in an attempted suicide. Blood everywhere, the person screaming and flailing about and as I help them my uniform became soaked with blood. One situation so tense, so emotionally packed, I vomited profusely after the call in the front of the person’s house.

I still feel deep sadness from responding to a call for a man, who, while tenting a building for termites, touched a live wire on the electric pole and was electrocuted in the extension bucket, right in front of his brother. Images of trying to work and revive the man while hearing the guttural screams and cries of his brother and the smell of burnt skin, haunt me.

I think of the countless times I responded to an individual who died— working our hardest to revive the person while their partner, so desperate for us to work some magic, continually called out cries of, “please, please I cannot lose him.” Having to finally walk over to that person after an hour and telling them their partner was dead, we’d done everything we could, still crushes me today. As they collapsed into an emotional breakdown, grabbing me and hugging me, I could never hold back the tears myself. I would always call my wife after those times, thinking of their pain and the similar pain one of us would one day experience. Sometimes I would talk, but most times I just wanted to hear her voice as I tried to push down and process the pain of what I had just experienced.

But nothing was worse than the children. Seeing an innocent child hurt, in pain, abused, or dead is unlike any other terror. Firefighters and police officers seem to have a lot of children themselves. When you see an innocent child hurt, all you can see is your own child. The images play over and over again in your head as you imagine this terror happening to one of your children, hearing their screams, seeing their pain. It can be overwhelming and debilitating for quite a while, and even then, it’s always there just below the surface, ready to resurface and bring back with it all the pain, fear, and sadness when something jogs the memory.

I could write a book, not just a chapter, on all the calls that permanently scarred me and are stored in my brain. And there are many departments and firefighters who have seen and experienced so much more than me. Unfortunately, as a firefighter, it’s not easy to admit you’ve been mentally impacted by a call .... 

About the Author

John Cuomo worked in the fire service for 24 years, serving as a firefighter, paramedic, driver/engineer, lieutenant, captain, step-up battalion chief, step-up training chief and step-up EMS chief. He also served as the pension representative for the police and firefighter pension fund for 10 years.

'Leadership Refined by Fire'
Publisher: Wild Bull Media
© May 2022

  1. Tags
  2. Leadership

Recommended for you

Join the discussion

Copyright © 2022 Fire Chief. All rights reserved.