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Shining light on the dark: Retired Bluffs firefighter discusses battle with PTSD
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Shining light on the dark: Retired Bluffs firefighter discusses battle with PTSD

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The darkness didn’t cloak now-retired Council Bluffs firefighter Capt. Dave Hyde in one fell swoop; rather, its presence grew with each emergency response, slowly extinguishing the light within the 23-year department veteran.

Though he’d been bothered by what the job entailed before — what he considered to be a normal, human response to seeing death and destruction — an incident in 2010 left him emotionally rattled. It ultimately jump-started his battle with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“It was my first house fire with a child death, and I was the first arriving captain on scene — I made the calls,” Hyde said. “We tried desperately to get him out of that house, and I felt like I failed. That was the first one that ever emotionally impacted me; I literally went away someplace by myself and I broke down.

“… You’re grieving the loss of a 9-year-old you couldn’t save. I mean, my job here, the reason the city pays me, is to save people in fires, and I had just failed at my job. It’s how I felt and how I internalized it.”

The feeling of personal failure, defeat and anguish swept over Hyde again in May 2011 when his crew was unable to rescue a man who succumbed to smoke inhalation during a house fire.

“It was a very smoky fire, hoarder conditions in the house, just impossible to get around,” he said.

Firefighters were told by neighbors that the home tenant worked nights and likely wasn’t home. Still, Hyde entered and completed a sweep to ensure the neighbors were correct. Maneuvering through the house, which he said was at near-zero visibility, Hyde came upon a jammed door.

“I pushed and pushed and pushed and pushed on this door — I leaned into it with everything I had,” he said. “I couldn’t get it — we thought there was a bunch of garbage piled up there, you know?”

After doing a room search down the hall, which took about a minute, Hyde returned and watched the ladder company use forcible entry tools to access the room.

“They chopped the door down and there was a guy leaning up against it, and I couldn’t get it open,” Hyde said. “I missed it, I did not find him, I killed him. That’s really how I felt, and that was eight months after the child died.”

Hyde officially stepped away from the fire department in February and was recognized for his service Thursday during a ceremony held at the Council Bluffs Fire Station. There was a bell-ringing ceremony, a celebratory cake and recognition given by Fire Chief Justin James and Mayor Matt Walsh.

The last to speak was Hyde himself — something he dreaded. Because, he said, he knew his speech wasn’t going to be a “feel-good, off-into-retirement-I-go” deal. If he was going to address his peers, he said he had to highlight the importance of mental health on the job and the toll emergency call after emergency call can take.

It wasn’t something he thought he was up for.

“I was absolutely filled with dread, because I had to come here and do this,” Hyde told the Nonpareil. “I didn’t want to do this, I was not going to do this, but my wife and daughters were adamant that I do this.

“And I am so glad I did … I didn’t think I’d ever get with a group of firefighters like this and say that stuff.”

The words, he said, matter. The Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance reported 119 firefighters and 20 emergency medical technicians and paramedics died by suicide in 2019, while 82 firefighters and 21 EMTs took their own life in 2018.

Even in a time where stigmas against mental health issues are diminishing in many careers, firefighters, EMTs and paramedics oftentimes still refuse to open up about the traumas they experience, he said.

James spoke candidly about some of the difficulties associated with firefighting.

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“I’d say that about 25 years is about all that a human should have to take of it … And unfortunately, that’s not always the case,” James said, referencing department retirement requirements. “ … I think that things start bothering people more and it can be harder to deal with it the older you get.

“You start thinking more and more about it than when you were 22 or 25, and over time that can wear on you.”

The stress and guilt and anger continued wearing on Hyde long after the 2010 and 2011 incidents. But, in 2015, he was able to channel some of his distress into something positive for the department.

Attending a seminar in Washington D.C., Hyde learned about the benefits of a Peer Support system.

“I was sick at the time; I was not only looking at its total value, I was hoping it was something that could help me,” Hyde said.

Hyde said he received funding and support through the firefighters’ union to help install a local program, one where trained Bluffs department members could discuss openly and candidly with team members struggling about what they were experiencing — essentially acting as a lifeline.

Prior to the inception of Peer Support locally, Hyde said he and his firefighter cohorts would exclusively undergo Critical Incident Stress Debriefings following traumatic incidents. Representatives outside of the force would come in and expect Hyde and others to talk about what they experienced and what they were feeling.

“And firemen don’t talk about shit like that,” Hyde said. “Because if you do, you’re weak. So what would always happen at these meetings is that we would sit in a room and nobody would say anything.

“So somebody smarter than me, I don’t know who, thought up Peer Support.”

Though Hyde is gone from the department, Peer Support remains a valuable tool for the force, James said.

“And we are going to be doing Peer Support, among other things,” James said. “There’s all kinds of stresses that can obviously get you in life. And the fire department adds an extreme amount of additional stress.”

And though the job took its toll, Hyde emphasized that he loved many aspects of his work. In fact, being a firefighter was really the only job he ever wanted. So when he stepped away earlier this year, there was an immediate void.

“The day after I retired, I felt like a different person,” Hyde said. “I felt like I lost part of my identity. It’s been my life. Firemen hang out with firemen, firemen talk a certain way, it’s really a true brotherhood. And then the next day you’re not that guy anymore and you’re 51 years old and you’re saying, ‘What the hell am I going to do now?’

“I mean, I know a lot of things, but I’ve spent a third of my life here every year for the last 23 years.”

Stepping away from fire and emergency calls hasn’t eliminated Hyde’s PTSD. He knows it’s something he will likely deal with for the rest of his life. But, he’s hoping some positive changes can come out of everything.

He said he meets with a therapist and has a large group of supporters in his corner from around the country dealing with similar adverse circumstances; others trying to claw their way out of the darkness and into the light.

So now, tackling a new life path, Hyde said it’s time to keep moving in the right direction, one step at a time.

“I’m really trying to not think too far ahead,” he said. “Because when you think too far ahead about where you’re going when you deal with this thing (PTSD), you also tend to think about all the problems you’re gonna have in the next three years.

“It’s kind of like the AA thing — it’s just a day at a time.”

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