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Survivor’s Guilt: How to Move Forward After a Line-of-Duty Death

By Dr. Shana Nicholson, faculty member, Emergency and Disaster Management at American Military University

Firefighters and rescue personnel pull on bunker gear and pack up. We cut the cars, start the IVs, push the drugs, save the babies, and hold the hands of our patients and their families. We are the rescuers not the rescued.

We are not supposed to be the ones who die, but it happens. We don’t always come out of the fire and we don’t always survive the impact. We don’t always make it home and we leave behind our fellow firefighters to live with our absence as well as their own grief.

Firefighter handsOn February 1, 2014, Michael ‘Mikey’ Garrett, a volunteer firefighter,  advanced emergency medical services provider and instructor in West Virginia, and my dear friend, gave his life in service of his fellow man. His death was incredibly difficult for many, including his friends, family and fellow firefighters.

How do we move on? How do we continue to do what we need to do to answer the next call? How do we heal?

Addressing Survivor’s Guilt
Survivor’s guilt is often a common reaction to the loss of one of our own. We wrap ourselves in its sadness and rage through our own anger and loss. We struggle through the stages of grief in a heightened manner because we are supposed to be the heroes, not the fallen. It is important to remember that feelings of guilt are a common part of the healing process, especially in a line-of-duty death. Guilt must be addressed before it consumes us as collateral damage.

We must acknowledge the loss and the heartache and seek support from other responders, friends, family, and support professionals such as psychiatric specialists. We must grieve and honor the loss we have suffered and work to turn the grief into a positive motivator for training, education, and prevention of future line-of-duty injuries and losses.

We must learn to be without our friend, our brother/sister, or our loved one(s), and we must answer the next call.

Getting Through a Line-of-Duty Death as a Department

Do Not Assess Blame
Surviving a line-of-duty death as a cohesive department is not easy. Departments and line officers must remember that assessing blame on others does not honor the sacrifice of the fallen. Do no further harm by blaming others, but instead use the incident as an opportunity to learn from possible mistakes.

Investigations Should Be Conducted by Outside Agencies
As a department faces the incident head on, investigations by trained professionals and government agencies such as the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) will determine responsibility. Such investigations should not be done in-house.

Be Mindful of Personnel Behavior
Line officers should be aware of personality changes in members in order to avoid a delay in necessary counseling and self-care. When it is appropriate to debrief as a department, do so. When it is appropriate to mourn your loss as a department, do so. When your members need your support and the support of outside agencies, seek this out for them.

Honor the Fallen
The friends and family of fallen firefighter, Michael ‘Mikey’ Garrett, chose to uphold Mikey’s memory by creating a scholarship fund in his name. The Michael ‘Mikey’ Garrett Memorial Scholarship Fund provides funding for emergency medical services education for West Virginia providers. This scholarship ensures that his passion for educating emergency medical personnel will continue.

Shana Nicholson headshot_v2About the Author: Dr. Shana Nicholson has more than 20 years of emergency medical and fire science service experience. She is currently an active member of Shinnston Volunteer Fire Department. Her professional background also includes government, social services, and nonprofit administration. She is currently a faculty member in emergency and disaster management at American Military University. She received a bachelor’s in criminal justice from Fairmont State University, a master’s of science in Human Services with a specialization in criminal justice from Capella University and a PhD in human services with a counseling specialization also from Capella University.

Leischen Kranick is a Managing Editor at AMU Edge. She has 15 years of experience writing articles and producing podcasts on topics relevant to law enforcement, fire services, emergency management, private security, and national security.

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