When you’re the fire chief everyone expects you to have the answers. This includes your bosses in local government and most importantly the firefighters you lead. Fire chiefs tend to think they know where the fire is going, whether it’s the burning building threatening to take out the whole block or an internal crisis that presents a serious challenge for a department.
In a new National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) documentary featuring San Diego Fire-Rescue, Chief Brian Fennessy talks about one critical incident the department faced where he didn’t envision the difficult path it would take. The lessons learned from the June 24, 2015 stabbings of Firefighter/Paramedic Ben Vernon and Firefighter Alexander Wallbrett during an EMS response have now brought key changes to how the department addresses the psychological well-being of its firefighters and paramedics.
“In my mind they get healed, it turns into a pretty good story and we recognized them publicly for the heroics and life goes on,” Chief Fennessy told the producers of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) video San Diego Fire-Rescue: Leadership So Everyone Goes Home. “Pretty naïve on my part. It certainly was not like that. Both suffered from varying degrees of PTSD, one very significantly.”
Another important attribute of firefighters and fire chiefs is quickly adapting to overcome the obstacles that prevent them from putting out the fire. In this case SDFD, working with other government agencies and the San Diego Fireman’s Relief Association, was able to put in place a counseling program to meet the needs of not just Vernon and Wallbrett, but the entire department.