Zero visibility


If you’ve been on the job any time at all, you know what I’m talking about. Well … MAYBE you do because there are several different directions (definitions) I could take here.

I’ve been in those fires. “Zero visibility”. Smoke so black and thick that you can’t see the lens of your mask.

The kind of smoke that has you breathing linoleum or carpet fiber because you’re pressing your face so hard to the floor looking for a millisecond of relief.

Fires so hot that your bottle is heated to the point that every breath you draw burns its way down to your lungs and hurts. Crawling seemingly blind …. reaching out in hopes of finding some sign of life, scared that you will but bound to keep pushing forward regardless.

I’ve been there. I’ve also been in “zero visibility” situations mentally and emotionally. I’m there now. I have been since December.

Read “Positional Awareness … Where the Hell am I?”

I want to talk to you again and share more of my story (thoughts) on depression, PTSD and stress. I know … that stuff is for pussies and we’re firefighters so it doesn’t affect us….right?  WRONG!

Some may disagree but I’m no “pussy”. I’m a Firefighter and I’m suffering from these illnesses … DEPRESSION, PTSD and STRESS. It’s built up over my entire career and only just surfaced following my Brothers death.


I’m blinded by it. I can’t seem to see my way through or out of it. It comes and goes to degrees but is often times not only blinding but paralyzing. The difficult thing (and something that adds to it all) is that I’m smart enough to know it. I know where I am and whats happening. What I don’t know is how to make it stop…. how to push through or move past it. There is no easy answer. If there was, I’d share it with you! It’s not as easy as pulling your boots back on.

Read “A Firefighter’s Boots”

I’ve lost all of my will…. most of it anyway. There are mornings when it’s a challenge just to get out of bed. Again, I can’t explain it.

My thoughts are so random and scattered that I cant seem to focus. I’m not eating or sleeping well. Once easy and routine daily tasks are becoming impossible. The farm, my finances are all fading. I could sit here all day drinking, trying to figure out the “why’s” and “what if’s”. Trying to make sense of it all. One thought leads to another, they all get mixed up and the next thing I know, it’s tomorrow and I go through it all again. I accomplished nothing for the day.

It’s affected me at home and at work. I have a GREAT family. Dysfunctional (we are a firefighting family) but GREAT. I know they read my postings but I don’t share these feelings with them personally. I can’t. It’s not how I was raised. Not as a person or firefighter. They all say “you know you can talk to me” but I cant. They know that.

I now know that it’s not a sign of weakness on my part to share these feelings but, beyond that; I don’t want to hurt those around me by letting them know how much I’m actually hurting. By letting them know how lost I really am. That eight months later I’m still hurting…. almost crippled. That I’m not strong enough to pick myself up and push ahead.

I know them … they want to help me. They will try. They’ll do everything within their power to do so and I know that means that they will sacrifice themselves (in one way or another) to accomplish that. How can I allow that to happen? Hurting them to help me? I can’t.

My Department … they DON’T HAVE A CLUE. In my mind, they’ve actually hurt me more than helped and that’s sad. I actually feel harassed. I was told to “take as much times as you need” yet the time I take is being held against me. I’ve been called to the office, had restrictions placed upon me and have even been  required to get doctor’s notes verifying my doctor’s notes (and I don’t even HAVE a doctor).

I think they too see the affects these illnesses are having on me but instead of getting (giving) me help, it’s easier for them to just look the other way. That way, they don’t have to deal with a potential “Department wide” problem. They won’t have to write new policies or procedures or change our current system  (we’ve experienced a firefighter suicide back in October 2007) .

It’s possible they don’t even know HOW to help me or that they don’t understand the severity of my illness. I’m sure they’re like many other Departments and simply don’t know what to do with me. They’ve even tried the ol “tough love” route to help whip me back into shape. I was told point blank just the other week … “do you’r job!”.

Passed over for promotions, transfer requests denied, maybe it’s the old “out of sight, out of mind” thought process. You know … ignore it and maybe it will go way.

Maybe they think they’ve tried.  Maybe they think what they’ve done is enough. What have they done? They’ve asked me how I’m “doing” and if I’m aware that “EAP” (Employee Assistance Program) is available to me.

I wonder how they think I’m doing? How would they be doing? What did they think my reply would be and did they really think I’d open up to them sitting across the desk in a court room like setting?

I am aware that E.A.P is available but not sure HOW to utilize it or if I even WANT to.  There are several reasons / factors concerning this issue that many just DON’T UNDERSTAND.

One is the way E.A.P is offered. You (or me in this case) have to ASK for it. You have to go to a total stranger, who knows NOTHING about the Fire Service or Firefighters; and ASK for help.


Do you know how difficult it is for us to ASK for help? TRUST ME … it’s NOT easy!

I’ve always been able to work through every other problem / obstacle I’ve faced in my life / career…. surely I can work through this without the help of someone I don’t know or trust…. right?

We have to go to the “City” nurse to request E.A.P (NOT a “Department” nurse … the “City” nurse). Where do I go or who do I call on weekends or Holidays? The nurse’s office is closed … do I just try to hold on a few more hours/days or do I just give up? There’s no clear path.

I think it’s a Nation wide problem and quite honestly, the “easy” way out. Why do so many Departments, Jurisdictions, States etc not have counseling units dedicated to Public Safety (Police, Fire and Rescue)?  If they do, why am I not aware of them? Why are they not readily available?

How many policies are out there relating to Depression, Stress or PTSD? Do they even consider these an illness / injury? Like I said earlier… NOT ALL WOUNDS ARE VISIBLE and it’s easier for them to just look the other way.

If I break my leg, or have a heart attack, odds are I’d be subject to a “fit for duty” test before being allowed to return to work. Why is there no such test for mental illness? Am I “fit for duty”? If not, am I “disabled”? If I am, does that make me eligible for benefits? Which ones? Who’s to say? What are the parameters?

Although I was not on duty the evening of Jack’s suicide, I can tell you that a “switch” was flipped inside my head that night. Seeing and doing what I did brought back memories and emotions from the job that I had locked away many years ago. They’re now in the front of my mind, jumbled with everything surrounding his life, death and the events of that night.

I wish I could explain what I mean when I say a “switch” was flipped. I can’t … but SOMETHING HAPPENED TO ME. Something mental. I know it but can’t explain or correct it. Depression, Stress and PTSD are NOT  perceptions … THEY ARE REAL.

The longer it goes untreated, the worse it gets and everything seems to build upon it. His death, the struggle to return to work, the harassment there, skipped yet again for promotion, talking about the experience, the constant reminders etc … it all builds up in my mind. It festers. You can only take so much and I fear I’m at my breaking point. Will I ever be ME again?

Read “Searching for a New Normal”

So what do you do? Where do you go? I DON’T KNOW.

That’s just it …. I’ve never had to ask for help!

What about “The Church”? For many, I’d say yes. As for me, I’m not so sure.  The “Church” is a big part of my battle that I’m still not ready to share publicly. Although I am spiritual (saved and a believer) , I don’t think it’s my route at this point.

The Doctor? Sure … which one? Will your family Doc understand PTSD / Depression? How about the ER? Maybe they’ll prescribe you some anti-depressants and tell ya to follow up in a few weeks. Take these pills and you’ll forget all about it! Hell … they may as well prescribe Evan Williams and Mt. Dew if that’s all they’re gonna do. What if you’re like me and don’t have a family doctor?

Maybe you just go check yourself into a psychiatric center? And talk to who? Someone who’s wearing a pair of socks that cost more than the cloths you’re wearing?

Maybe they’d put you in a group with some complete strangers. Have ya sit in a circle and talk about your “feelings”.

What would they know about what we’ve done? About what we’ve seen? How long do you think it would take for them to gain your confidence? 

You may as well go see Lucy from Charlie Brown!

How about “labeling” back in the Department?

Will you become the “nut case” for going in?  How can (will) anyone trust, follow or depend on you from that point forward? Will they ever be able to trust your decision making abilities again? Will “I’m not doing that …. he’s CRAZY” become the standard reply? What will they whisper? Imagine the jokes that will be told ….

We’re screwed! Who else out there could possibly understand the decisions and the decision making processes we go through on a daily basis? On each and every call? LIFE ALTERING DECISIONS!

Are we THAT unique or I’m I just THAT screwed up in thinking so? I can’t answer that question either but I can tell ya that there are VERY few people whom I trust and/or confide in (I can count them on one hand actually). I’d bet you’re the same way.

We all have our “problems” and many weigh heavier on some than others. Again I’ll say they “build up” … they “fester”. Even the smallest of things. Working a FD schedule and always ending up on duty for that “special” event. Your son’s baseball game, your daughter’s dance etc. Finances. Who out there is rich? Working two and three jobs yet still living paycheck to paycheck. The van (Blog Mobile) has cost me over $5,000 in the past two months and I can’t afford to sell it with that much invested. The hydraulic pump went our in my tractor costing $1,800 and keeping me out of the fields for a couple of the few dry days we’ve had. Now the clutch is out costing me who knows how much more. I’m still behind on my 1st cutting of hay, never mind the 2nd. The bearing went out on the lawn mower and the shaft needs replaced.  What else can possibly go wrong? I’m almost afraid to ask.

Read “We are all Climbing”

I know there are many of you out there suffering through the same things I am. I’d like to tell you that you’re not alone but I’m not going to lie to you. YOU ARE.

Nobody can go through this FOR you. It’s your battle to fight … win or loose.

What I will tell ya is that there are folks out there who will go through it WITH you.

People who have survived what we’re experiencing and who know the challenges we face. People who will stand beside and guide you (us). People who love and understand us. People who want us back …. who want us HEALTHY.

I don’t think the pain, that “kicked in the gut”, or “short of breath” feeling will ever go away but we can learn to deal / cope with it. If nothing else, WE HAVE TO LEARN TO LIVE  WITH IT.

Rhett made a phone call last week. He reached out for me because he knew I couldn’t (or wouldn’t). There’s a huge lesson in that. How many Brothers or Sisters do you work with who are struggling?

How many days to you think to yourself that they’ll pull through it? “It’s just a bump in the road” or said “They’ll be alright in a few days”.

Have you ever thought about how hard it may be for them to ask for the help they need? Maybe they don’t even know where that help is. Maybe you don’t either. Would YOU know where or how to make that call for them?

When is it too late to figure it out?

In the last 2 years, there were 370 firefighter deaths by suicide.   Taking their own life was a choice they made and it “should not be conceived as one of weakness but one where they might not have believed they had any other options to relieve their pain”.

It’s up to us to bring those alternative options to the front! I’m still lost but you don’t have to be. Our Brothers and Sisters don’t have to be. Open your eyes! We should NOT be suffering due to an ignorance of Behavioral Health and Wellness. 

Here are some links to the places and people that I’ve found to be the most comfort. I’ll add that Shannon Pennington’s phone (NAFFVN) is always on. If you call … HE WILL ANSWER and he talks “fireman”. He’s one of us and understands.

North American Fire Fighter Veteran Network 

Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance

The Sweeney Alliance. Grieving Behind the Badge

Recover From Grief .com

If you are one of those brothers or Sisters out there struggling, this post is for you. You don’t have to keep wandering around in the dark … in zero visibility. There is a light at the end of the tunnel and you (we) can survive this.

There is NO SHAME in asking for help and we can not get through this alone. Use the contacts (links) I’ve provided … contact me if that makes you more comfortable … just REACH OUT. There ARE resources available and better days ahead. I’ll meet you there!

Also read “Leave the Baggage Behind”

Stay SAFE and in House!

Captain Wines


  • bob thomas

    great article. been there still doing it but with help. family and brotherhood have helped a lot, not to mention my doctors. used to be ashamed of it but now have no problem talking about it. email me please would like to talk to you.and yes there is a light at the end of the tunnel. bob Thomas ff/emt , 17 yrs, Manchester fire rescue, ct.

  • Brian Wood

    I’m one of those “survivors”! It is the hardest road I’ve ever been on, but I made it. I constantly look at others on the dept. That may need help. Because I know they will be like I was and not ask for the help. If what I went through will allow me to help one person, then it was worth it.

  • BennyC

    The chest pains, kicked in the butt, and all the other physical symptoms will stop. I honestly can’t say why mine have stopped for the moment (don’t want to jinx it). There is only one thing that I can really point out and that was keeping myself occupied. Whether it be with fire related stuff on the web or simply watching and playing sports again. I honestly can’t say. Some who have experienced it say you’ll have good years and bad so maybe this is one of my “good” years. I’m trying to keep a positive mind-set and not focus on the things that led to my problems (easier said then done I know). For the first time in 2 years I could finally step back in the station without feeling any symptoms which is a major accomplishment. Unlike you though I have not started my career (paid) yet so I am able to take time off from my volunteer department. It’s an extremely up hill battle that nobody will understand except those who have been through. Even my own dad made some comments about it be “all in my head” and to “suck it up”. Sometimes I wish people would experience what we have to go through but I wouldn’t wish it upon them. As for the medical side I personally did not take pills while my other family members did. We both are doing fine as of now. I honestly think the only way to overcome this disease is to re-train your brain. Learning to block the outside inhibitors, the thoughts that make you wonder why your having these pains (is it related to a disease or am I just blowing things out of proportion), the negative individuals in your life. For the longest time being in public would cause these attacks. I ended up shutting myself away from life in general which turned my PTSD/Anxiety disorder into depression. The best way IMO to re-train/refocus the brain is to come up with a schedule. Even if it’s something minor like waking up and doing some basic exercises or doing some minor yard work. Just get something to focus on and that you continue to focus on that will yield some uplifting results. Positive influences are key to recovery as well as exercise. If you ever need to talk I have an entire side of the family (and I mean everyone) that has gone through this and recovered. Just hit me up on FB (Ben Cunningham, New Castle, PA)

  • Robert

    Man, what a great read! I can truly feel the pain of being lost as i read it! I have never suffered from bad depression to where i thought it was a problem but i have lived through it with my wife for 17 years. Bless her heart, she has struggled with it and put up one hell of a fight. I have come in so many times to see her crying and ask why to only get “I dont know” I have had so many episodes through the years where i would panic cause i couldnt get her to answer the phone and couldnt go home to check on her because of being on duty! I use to not be able to understand people that was depressed or committed suicide until i really learned that this is a TRUE disease or sickness!! I watch my wife struggle so hard to survive with good days and bad and I know in my heart that its a real sickness! I dont push her to talk to me but I do guide her to find someone to talk too! To this day she has been through so many counselors but she never gives up in finding the “right” one. Sometimes when she first goes to one she feels comfortable but as they get into what bothers her, either they dont know how to continue or she pulls back! She has found one now that she feels like is helping but her insurance doesnt want to pay like it should and it makes her want to say the hell with it but as long as i can work i will find the money if it helps her!!! All I can say from my experience is please dont give up, find some help no matter how long it may take! She has helped herself by finding what makes her life worth living and devotes a lot time to those things and she SMILES a lot more today than her yesterdays!!

  • Sharppointy1

    Capt Willie, I’ve mentioned before that my Mother suicided, now it’s been 19 years ago. What I didn’t mention before is I have walked that lonely frightening path you’re on by myself, too. I was hospitalized in a psych unit about 25 years ago for suicidal depression.
    The world was gray, Sylvia Plath describes it very poetically as being under the bell jar. I could see the world going on around me, and I was participating at some level, but I was lost in a stormy sea of depression. As I struggled harder and harder to fight being depressed, the desire to end my pain overcame my desire to be a Mom, a wife, a nurse, a family member. My focus narrowed down, as I’m suspecting yours has, to “How do I get out of this pain?”
    I too find it very frustrating that there’s often no physical signs that we are in a life and death struggle with our own brains. As you have experienced, people don’t know what to say to us. We look “fine”. Those who have not suffered PTSD and major depressive disorder don’t fully understand what it’s like.
    What saved my life is what you’re doing now – talking about it. I fought against being hospitalized until I revealed to my therapist a very lethal plan. In answer to his question abut my kids I revealed I knew my essence was damaging them and that with their Dad and good therapists they’d be much better off without me. I was praying for God to fix me. I calmly sat in services and said to Him “You now I’m coming. If You don’t want me to, do something”. The following day I entered the funny farm after my MD said if I didn’t go myself he’d have the police take me.
    Willie, it took years of hard work in therapy and medications and eventually 4 stays overall in psych hospitals to get where I am now. Suicide is off my plate. I am no longer depressed or suffering from PTSD. I have forgiven my Mom, as you will one day forgive Jack. I have a wonderful life with grandkids galore. I am married (second marriage) to my best friend and he and I have a great understanding of each other.
    I’m going to you Willie Wines FB page, where I will message you my email so we can talk in private. You see, my job now is as a psychiatric nurse. I work with people like us and help them get better. I have worked in the ER and spent time with the firefighters from my town. No, I don’t know the ins and outs of firefighting and I’m not a brother (or sister) firefighter but I am a survivor of the deadly disease that’s trying to kill you and I want to be a friend who can help personally.

  • Bigjim

    Somewhere in there is a call for help. You have negative comments about seeking help from the EAP, the church, the doctor and even a psychiatric hospital. You are convinced that no one, unless they ride or have ridden a fire truck can help you. My electronic friend, you are so very wrong. You have a medical problem, not a fire problem. Get to a professional for help. I did once, it was hard for the first 10 minutes and then it got easier. I’m pretty sure you’re tough enough to make it 10 minutes with a pro.

  • Jolie

    Thank you for writing this. It is awesome to see a post of this nature on a site that boasts “Wooden Ladders & Iron Firemen.” Having these issues doesn’t make you weak, not addressing them does. Taking your life is the easy way out for you and devastating for all of those around you. Thank you again, I have lost 3 Brothers in the last 6 months to suicide.

  • Pete

    I want to help you. The same thing is happening to me. Im being tortured everytime I show up to work and I cant see the light at the end of the tunnel. I am in the same boat as you my dearest friend Captain Wines…we need to pull through this thing together.

  • Shifty

    You are a dik

  • Keep the faith brother…..with the ptsd and the other stuff ….open up the inch and a half between your head and heart and keep working the emotional fire ground …..your on the nozzle end and there is plenty of H.E.A.T. (Heavy Emotional Afterthoughts) Backup on scene with R.I.T (Responsible Intervention Techniques)…..remember your buddy….your not alone….
    Shannon Pennington IAFF 26 year career firefighterveteran with ptsd
    on the web

  • hey shifty what up with dik you animal enough to say it to my face or are you masked up with your own shit and have to lash out with a brother…..? Lets have some face time and have you say it to me directly….addy and phone number mine is ph 250 732-3924 Or are you a coward hiding in the smoke? Thought so….shannon pennington firefighterveteran

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