Firefighters and Their Families: Making Connections at WBC

As its participants can confirm, the Phoenix Society’s World Burn Congress (WBC) creates a community that nurtures the common bonds among burn survivors. Burn survivors, regardless of their careers or other life circumstances, share similar steps to recovery and universal experiences, such as healing from trauma, grieving, and forgiveness.

The Phoenix Society acknowledges this shared experience among survivors, but also creates space for attendees at WBC to connect with others who share characteristics that are specific to their burn injury. For example, the programming at WBC includes special topic support and discussion forums for such groups as adult burn survivors burned as children, survivors with “hidden” burns, and survivors who experienced electrical injuries.

Partnerships Make it Possible
The Society, through its partnerships with burn foundations, individual members of the fire service, and organizations such as the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) Charitable Foundation Burn Fund, the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF), and the University of Kentucky College of Social Work, has also worked to better meet the support needs of another group—burn-injured members of the fire service and their families.

FireFighters Find Forum For healing
The fire service-related sessions at this year’s WBC included a support group for burn-injured firefighters (attended by about 30 firefighters), as well as one for their spouses (attended by about 16 spouses); a discussion group for all firefighters (attended by about 75 firefighters); and an In the Line of Duty panel, featuring Fire Capt. Luis Nevarez,

Luis Nevarez, firefighter and burn survivor, shares his viewpoint as a panelist at WBC.

Luis Nevarez, firefighter and burn survivor, shares his viewpoint as a panelist at WBC.

firefighter Scott Atchison, and firefighter-spouse Amy Adams, which provided insight into the firefighter experience to all attendees. As part of a general session panel, Providence, Rhode Island, Fire Lt. Antiliano Estrella discussed advocacy efforts and fire code policy changes that stemmed from the tragic Station nightclub fire in 2003. Lionel Crowther, a Winnipeg, Manitoba (Canada), firefighter, and his wife Joanna also shared their story in the general session. In 2007, Lionel and another firefighter, were burned while operating at a house fire that also claimed the lives of 2 fire captains. Establishing forums where firefighters and their families can share their experiences, thoughts, and express their feelings has been an important addition to WBC programming. Their impact and benefit can best be described in the words of several participants:

  • Fire Lt. Paul Machado of the Fall River, Massachusetts, Fire Department was burned in March and attended WBC for the first time this year. He wrote, “it was great to meet everyone there and experience the conference. There was an instant connection meeting other firefighter burn survivors—they understand everything that has gone through my head. I was skeptical going in. I think you have to be here to get it—firefighters reaching out to and learning from the burn community. I’m now an advocate and will be sharing this with Brothers and Sisters.”
  • Fire Lt. Joe Kalinowski of the Marshfield, Massachusetts, Fire Department was injured fighting a fire in November 2012. He commented on the bonds that exist among firefighters and, in particular, burn survivors in the fire service, saying, “The [WBC] sessions reinforced the fact that we are a family in our profession throughout North America. Regardless of the severity of our individual injuries or stage of healing, as burn survivors we are a family that is able to support each other and share what we are experiencing or have experienced; unconditionally we have resources available to us.”
  • Firefighter Atchison, also a first-time WBC attendee, who was partnered with Firefighter Crowther that tragic night in 2007, commented, “As part of the In Line of Duty panel, I gave the perspective of a firefighter who survived a tragic incident without burn injuries, as well as insight into the workplace the burn survivor firefighters would potentially be returning to. My wife, Sheri, was also able to attend with help from the Phoenix Society and she attended the spouse support groups that helped her greatly. We were truly and deeply inspired by the survivors, health care providers, and firemen we met.
    “Going into the conference there was a feeling of apprehension as to my place with burn survivors as there are no physical scars on me. When you are a fireman, you can usually identify who has been in serious situations by looking at the gear of fellow firefighters. Some of the experienced guys will wear blackened helmets or gear that displays the wear and toil of prior incidents. My peers at the conference—both firefighter and non-firefighter— wore their blackened helmets everywhere they went in the form of physical scars. These scars gave unspoken stories of survival. After speaking on the panel and in support groups sharing the tragedy we experienced in Winnipeg, we heard the stories of some others. The internal scars, coping mechanisms, and healing processes of the survivors in this group became apparent, affirming the feeling of belonging only a group like this can bring. It helped us greatly. We felt very welcomed into this family of special individuals. Thank you very much to the Phoenix Society for helping us attend and creating such an incredible forum for healing.”

Spouses Bond With others
Who understand Journey Scott’s wife, Sheri, added to his comments from her perspective, saying, “This was my first conference at the Phoenix Society’s World Burn Congress and I have to admit that I wasn’t sure what to expect. For me personally, I didn’t realize that I buried my feelings/stress from the event until I attended a burn injured firefighter spouse support group. This was the first exposure I ever had to feeling like I was “normal”— every spouse feeling the same feelings… I walked away from this event with a new purpose and a new light. There was a real benefit of attending the Phoenix Society’s World Burn Congress this year. The connections that I made felt so genuine, and I know they will carry me through the rough times ahead for me. I wouldn’t have even contemplated starting this emotional recovery journey if I hadn’t attended the firefighter spouse-specific session. Firefighters are a special breed; while everyone else is running away from danger they thrive on running into danger. It is hardwired into them and you can’t change that, so to be able to communicate our fears with other spouses is a release for us.”

Leslie Kalinowski attended WBC for the first time along with her husband, Joe. She shared that “there is strength in bonding with people with similar situations in life—people who can truly understand the journey.” She explained that after attending the conference she has a new sense of “moving on” that she hasn’t had for many months. “It’s a good feeling,” she says. “I had no idea what to expect, but was pleasantly surprised. I went under the premise of being there to support Joe. I had no idea that I would take so much out of it for myself….I feel I have new resources in my journey as a spouse of an injured firefighter.”

Jeannine Barrera, wife of retired Stockton, California, Fire Capt. Oscar Barrera initially faced her husband’s injury in 1997 without this type of support. Oscar was injured when responding to a house fire during which the second floor collapsed, killing two of his fellow firefighters. Jeannine has since become a Phoenix Society SOAR (Survivors Offering

Phil Tammaro at In the Line of Duty, one of several programs at WBC focusing on the experiences of firefighter-survivors.

Phil Tammaro at In the Line of Duty, one of several programs at WBC focusing on the experiences of firefighter-survivors.

Assistance in Recovery) peer supporter and a regular participant in WBC and the burn-injured firefighter spouse support group. She shares that when she was finally able to speak to other wives of burn-injured firefighters, she felt as if she had “finally found a home.”

“Before that,” she says, “I felt like I was just floating through the [WBC] conference since nothing really connected to what I went through. Yes, we all had a burn survivor connection but no one quite had the experience I had. It’s unfortunate that our support group probably will grow because that means more firefighters will be injured, but I am grateful to the Phoenix Society for understanding that there is a much needed place in their conference for the burn-injured spouse support/discussion group.”

Libby Feyh and her husband, Sacramento, California, Fire Capt. Mike Feyh, who was burned in 2010 during a house explosion that was determined to be the result of arson, have been involved since the inception of the fire service-specific support groups. Libby, who now serves as co-facilitator of the spouse support group, shares her perspective about the necessity of having these specialized offerings at WBC and their involvement in the Phoenix Society’s SOAR program, saying: “Mike and I both went through SOAR peer supporter training a few years ago at World Burn Congress and we are proud to be part of something so important to so many. Beyond the SOAR curriculum, though, we learned that being a burn-injured firefighter, or spouse of a burn-injured firefighter, meant we had a different perspective on many things than our civilian SOAR counterparts.” For one thing, she explains, the incident surrounding a firefighter’s injury is often a media event. Additionally, the firefighter-survivor hopes for nothing more than to be able to remain in the profession that put him or her in the position of being burned.

“This creates different dynamics in the recovery process for us,” says Libby. She adds that there are many other more subtle, but nonetheless significant, distinctions that also make the experience of the firefighter-survivors and their families unique.

Libby credits the addition of dedicated fire service sessions, including the fire service-specific discussion
groups, as being very helpful. There, she says, the couple could freely express their doubts, concerns, anxieties, and triumphs and know that others in the room would understand because they were walking the same road.

“This support meant a lot to us during Mike’s recovery and all through the subsequent arson-related trial and the continued glare of the media spotlight,” explains Libby. “The fact that attendance in these groups
has essentially doubled each year since they have been offered is testament to their power and the need for them.”

FireFighter-Specific Component of WBC to Continue to Provide Support
WBC programming includes sessions that connect attendees through shared experiences and characteristics—and those addressing the needs of the fire service are now among them thanks to the efforts and participation of many. Fire Capt. Nevarez, who lost his hand and forearm after contacting a 12,000-volt power line while on a call, credits the fire service involvement in WBC with giving many firefighters “direction and the guidance to many other resources.” We hope that others in need of support will join us next year at the Phoenix Society’s 2014 World Burn Congress, October 22-25, in Anaheim, California.

Karen Badger, PhD, MSW, is an associate dean and associate professor at the College of Social Work, University of Kentucky. Phil Tammaro, FF-EMT is a professional firefighter in Billerica, Massachusetts, and 3rd district burn coordinator for the IAFF Charitable Foundation Burn Fund.

Special thanks to all those firefighters and their spouses who contributed their reflections.

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