Damn Deaths and Tuna

Chief Russ Randolph.
Chief Russ Randolph.

I have received a few letters recently about dealing with death, firefighter suicides, post-traumatic stress disorder, behavioral health - the so-called impact of the things we deal with - asking my thoughts. Each one of the letters is very important, and I am going to address them in general, from my standpoint.

This isn’t a “Dear Nozzlehead” letter but a piece about the recent deaths of three good friends, losses I have personally experienced. Sad as it seems, there have been more than three in the past several months; that tends to happen as you get older, but these three were hard to process. I am writing my personal thoughts related to those. This is not a feel-sorry-for-me piece and definitely not a story that’s about “me,” not by a long shot, but it is a piece that further helped me understand how others deal with bad stuff ... and this will allow me to address the letters that were written to me and pass that on to you.

Let me introduce you to three of my firefighter brothers who recently passed away.

Chief Russ Randolph, 55, Trailer Estates Fire Rescue District in Manatee County, Bradenton, Florida: We Got One, Let’s Go!

Russ was a dear and very close life-long family and professional friend, with our first meeting taking place when he chased our fire apparatus on his bicycle in the very early ’70s. One of the first “bike calls” he made was arriving on a scene in the middle of town where the crew and I were doing CPR on his dad, and our close friendship remained ever since. From crawling hallways in the ’70s and ’80s together with our Rescue Company 3 crew at the Manhasset-Lakeville Fire Department on Long Island (NY) to his public safety and fire service career in Florida, this was a man who did nothing but good. Absolutely nothing but good.

Russ functioned as an active volunteer chief (and retired career firefighter) up until his last few months as a horrible disease started to take over. It sucked. He was losing his smile. I had a chance to spend time with him just days prior to his death (October 2016) and, along with another one of our “squad,” Herbie K, we told jokes (real stupid jokes) to a barely conscious Russ, who had tubes and wires in and out of him, and watched him crack a bare smile. He knew his fellow morons were there with him.

Those who knew Russell always smiled and chuckled when his name came up or when he walked in a bay or room; he was one of those people - hopefully you know the type - who would make you lucky. He was that kind of firefighter. Crazy. Firefighter. Seriously, crazy. By every account, Russ was absolutely one of the good guys. He LOVED the fire service - 24/7/365. That hit me about all three of these men I am writing about, and I am not just saying that. If one of these guys were not, I would tell you that too, but these were the good guys. The T-shirts and brotherhood stickers … they were made with these three guys in mind.

FDNY Firefighter Ray Pfeifer, 59, was “that guy” who pushed to save others, on fire calls and ... while fighting for his own life.

Do the right thing, even when no one is looking. That was the “mantra” or “theme” of one of the most inspirational men I, and so many others, ever met. Ever.

FDNY Firefighter Ray Pfeifer died in the line of duty in May from the injuries, illness, sickness, and disease he, like so many others, contracted while operating on 9/11 at the World Trade Center.

Since 2009, cancer had taken his kidney, leg, and a bunch of other physical stuff, but it never touched his heart. Those of you who knew Ray know what I am talking about. Those of you who don’t will just have to trust us - and I would never lie to you. His heart couldn’t be touched by cancer.

You actually DO know Ray. He was “that” FDNY firefighter in the wheelchair who, along with numerous FDNY and NYPD troops and supporters, including famous guy Jon Stewart, made more than 14 trips to Washington D.C. to convince reluctant lawmakers to expand benefits for ailing firefighters, police officers, EMTs, and others who served and got sick from 9/11 exposure. Ray would not leave his Washington D.C. trips without commitments from Congress, which he received, but it wasn’t about him.

I was very lucky to have known Ray over the years as a well-known and beloved firefighter at FDNY Engine 40. Ray also served as a very active volunteer firefighter (and former captain) with the East Meadow Fire Department (Nassau County, Long Island, New York) Engine Company 3.

Firefighter Ray Pfeifer.

We unintentionally reignited our friendship right after he was diagnosed and was assigned to work at the FDNY counterterrorism and emergency preparedness unit. I hadn’t seen Ray in a while and you wouldn’t have known he was sick. I don’t mean by looking at him, I mean by his attitude. He was happy, laughing, breaking balls, and just glad to be “kick’n” after his grim diagnosis. It was truly remarkable, as this man had pretty much been handed the worst news ever and he was gung ho to be at work and ready to fight whatever he had to up until his last breath. While smiling.

And fight he did. Those closest to him described that they had never seen anyone fight like this. There was the physical beating he took from the disease and the treatments. There were the mental, emotional, and psychological beatings, but you would NEVER know it. His life’s mission, before and after his diagnosis, was to simply do good. And good he did. For example, a few months ago HE hosted a fundraiser to buy a beautiful new transport van for the FDNY Family Transport. They raised something like $60,000 that day. BAM. DONE. Done for others.

My wife Teri and I were able to be with him and some of his friends and family when he was in hospice. When asked how the visit went, I will tell you what I told a few friends: It was almost spiritual. We laughed ... busted chops ... told a few stories ... we hugged ... kissed ... a few “we’ll see ya arounds,” and there was no outward sadness. I’m not sure he would allow it or whatever, but it was something else. Maybe, according to Ray, there was no time for sadness. Crazy as ever.

Clearly when we left we could see the heartache and heartbreak of his closest family and friends, but when in the room you might as well have been at his firehouse kitchen shooting the bull. When we left, our hearts were full with every emotion pinging on high.

Ray died on May 28, 2017, right when our firefighters were picking up from a third-alarm commercial building fire in the heart of our historical district. I’m not sure there is any connection with Ray in that but I promise you this: It was the kind of fire Ray would have loved to fight. He was a 100 percent firefighter. Day and night, he was always a firefighter … one of THOSE guys. Always wearing fire department “colors,” always wanting to know the latest, always wanting to train, always listening to the radio, and he even owned his own rig. One of THOSE firefighters.

“I am a lucky man,” he said. “No matter what happens, I had 14 more years than the people who died that day.” Ray lived every moment, up until his last breath, with the philosophy and attitude to do the right thing, even when no one was looking.

Fire Commissioner Rick Stein from New Hyde Park, New York: What Can I Do to Help?

Ricky recently completed his term as fire commissioner of the New Hyde Park Fire District and was also a past chief of department of the Fire Island Pines Fire Department in Suffolk County (NY) and a former chief inspector for the FDNY. He was also former chief of the New Hyde Park Auxiliary Police and a member of Elks Club Lodge 2107. He was community involved. Teri and I met Rick many years ago through some mutual fire service friends and, again, he was one of “those” people.

While we had many visits and meals together, Ricky always loved talking about being at Teri’s big 50th birthday beach party in 2009 along with the other 130+ people! He was thrilled to hang out with so many great folks - fire, family, and friends! Several weeks later, Ricky sent her a beautiful photo album complete with his commentary as a gift. He also gave her a fire helmet signed by KISS! He was a great guy and a wonderful, caring human being. Are you seeing a common denominator here?

In the past few years, Ricky had some very serious health problems but also lost some friends and some immediate family members, which hit him very hard. His whole life was about his family and his friends and, quite frankly, after he lost his beloved Mom not long ago, I’m not sure he was able to recover.

Fire Commissioner Rick Stein.

DEALING WITH THE BAD STUFF

These friends I am writing to you about remind me of the quote by “Ronald the Arsonist” in the movie “Backdraft” when he said, “The funny thing about firemen is, night and day they are always firemen.” That›s who these guys were, and still are, in many hearts and minds - and maybe even yours now.

To be clear, the loss of these guys hurt so many people and will continue to do so. It still hurts me a lot, but how it hurts me may be very, very different than how it hurts someone else. Keep reading.

So, what’s the secret to dealing with the bad stuff we see, respond to, and deal with? What about the so-called “regular” life stuff that challenges us? How do we manage our mental health, emotional well-being, and behavioral health so we are “OK” when dealing with either personal or response-related “bad stuff”? How do we not drink ourselves, smoke ourselves, dope ourselves, drive ourselves, or whatever to death - unintentionally or intentionally? How do we not harm ourselves when the pain gets that bad?

To be clear, I am only qualified to give you my highly unqualified opinion. I’m no doctor or behavioral health specialist. No way. Not even close. I don’t have a whole lot of alphabet letters after my name. All I have is years of doing, watching, experiencing, screwing up, learning, and keeping doing. And, I do get to write about stuff and give my opinion, mostly when asked.

I think how each of us deals with the bad stuff is similar to tuna fish. Some people LOVE tuna fish. They can eat it all day, in sushi, in salad, on the grill; they love tuna fish. Some people CANNOT STAND tuna fish. Why?

Because we are different. (Enjoy this moment of Zen. Ommmmmm).

OK, now, back to us. Us is we and we all like, don’t like, or simply hate different stuff. Some like Chinese food, others do not. Some love Italian food. Others? Fahgettaboutit. Some people are chilly in a room and others are sweating. Some love the smell of freshly cooked cabbage, and most of us don’t. Some like the only real kinds of music: country and western, and some like hard rock, jazz, ska (google it), or rap. Some cry at movies while others are looking around and wondering, “What the hell are they crying about!?” Some people think some comedians are funny, and some, not at all.

Some do this ... and some do that.

In my sometimes (to a fault) simple way of seeing things, the sooner we (fire service peers and bosses) realize that we are all different and deal with stuff differently, the better off we will be. To even think that there is one way of dealing with the bad stuff is to shove tuna down everyone’s throat; it won’t work. Gag.

To expect people to “tough it out” may work for some but others, the way they are wired, simply can’t tough anything out. For others, “toughing it out” is not in their programming and, quite frankly, impossible as a solution. Forget tough, think big strong people who cry at holiday puppy commercials. They are VERY tough, but bring out those puppies and … awwwww.

It is 2017, and I’m not sure that the term (and actions of) “toughing it out” even applies any longer. There is valid concern about behavioral health issues and the significant impact they have on firefighter wellness. It is real. The stresses faced by us as firefighters on incidents involving kids, violence, our past (such as veterans), and the role of being a firefighter (making the runs) can have a cumulative impact on our mental health and well-being.

Regular life stuff can be overwhelming as well, more to some than others. It doesn’t matter if you like it or agree, it is their feelings. Think some comedians are funny, some people like tuna, etc.

Many of the fire service associations such as the IAFF, NVFC, and the NFFF continue to develop phenomenal resources that educate and support firefighters on behavioral health concerns. Please check out their behavioral health programs and resources.

The only takeaway I can offer here is the understanding that we all see things, react to things, and absorb things differently. It’s kind of an emotional diversity. It’s not good or bad, it’s just DIFFERENT. What you as an officer may think isn’t a big deal may be huge to that firefighter or those firefighters under your command. Size-up applies to the troops, too.

Take time to get trained. Attend the many excellent fire service programs, in person and online, provided by the associations that are out there related to behavioral, emotional, and mental health. And while you attend that training, watch what happens at lunch; some will grab the tuna sandwiches and some will be looking for anything but the tuna.

Still looking for the “secret to life” and dealing with all this stuff? Go listen to Faith Hill’s song “The Secret to Life.”

Rest in peace Russ, Ray, and Ricky.

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August 2017
Volume 12, Issue 8
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