I feel fortunate that I’m not haunted by the images of what I have witnessed. If I don’t sleep well at night it’s due to stress at work or at home, not dark images from the years I spent working in emergency services.
I realize I sometimes abuse my past as a paramedic in my security writings, but today it is far more relevant than usual.
I became an EMT at the age of 19, and was in paramedic school by 21. By 22 years of age, I was in charge of my ambulance – often with only an EMT as a partner. In retrospect, I was too young.
People I’d meet, especially in college, would often ask what the worst thing I saw was. I’d laugh it off, but the answer was never blood, guts, or brains. Yes, I saw a lot of dead and dying of all ages in all circumstances, but for the most part real life isn’t as graphic as the movies, and professional detachment is something I have always been good at.
The real horrors are the situations we, as a species, place ourselves in. It was seeing poverty so abject that it changed my political views. It was children without a future.
Public safety officials – paramedics, cops, firefighters – and our extended community of ER nurses and doctors, corrections officers, and other support positions… all suffer high rates of burnout and even suicide. Everyone hits the wall at some point – the question is whether you can move past it.
Unless you have responded to some of the “big ones” that lead to PTSD, the wall isn’t often composed of particularly graphic memories. It is built, brick by brick, by pressure, stress, and, ultimately, futility. The knowledge that no matter how well you do your job, no matter how many people you help, nothing will change overall.
Those who can’t handle the rough stuff usually leave the job early. It’s the cumulative effect of years or decades of despair that hammer the consciousness of those who easily slip past nightmares of any particular incident.
Working in the trenches of information security can be no less demanding and stressful. Like those of us in public safety, you gird for battle every day knowing that if you’re lucky nothing bad will happen and you will get to spend the day on paperwork. And if you aren’t your employer ends up in the headlines and you end up living at your desk for a few days.
Deep in the trenches, or on the streets, there’s no one else to call for help. You’re the last line; the one called in when all hell breaks loose and the situation is beyond the capacity of others to handle. What is often the single worst thing to happen to someone else is just another call for you.
One day you realize there’s no winning. It won’t ever get better, and all your efforts and aspirations lead nowhere.
At least, that’s one way to look at it.
But not how the real professionals thrive on the job.
You can focus on the futility or thrive on the challenge and freedom. The challenge of never knowing exactly what the day holds. The freedom to explore and play in a domain few get to experience. And, in the process, you can make that terrible event just a little bit easier on the victim.
I nearly burned out in EMS at one point. From the start I knew I wasn’t any sort of hero; you don’t work the kinds of calls I did and believe that for long. But, eventually, even the thrill of the lights and sirens (and helicopters, and …) wears off. I realized that if I called out sick, someone else would take my place, and neither one of us would induce any macro changes.
Instead I started focusing on the micro. On being a better paramedic/firefighter/rescuer. On being more compassionate while improving my skills. On treating even the 8th drunk with a head laceration that week like a human being.
And then, on education. Because while I couldn’t save the human race, I might be able to help one person avoid needing me in the first place.
Playing defense all the time isn’t for everyone. No matter how well-prepared you are mentally you will eventually face the burnout wall. Probably more than once.
I thrive on the unexpected and continual challenges. Always have, and yet I’ve hit the burnout wall in both my emergency services and security careers. And for those of you at the entry level – looking at firewall logs and SIEM consoles or compliance reports all day – it is especially challenging. I always manage to find something new I love about what I do and move forward.
If you want to play the game, you learn to climb over the wall or slip around it. But don’t blame the wall for being there. It’s always been there, and if you can’t move past it you need to find another job before it kills you.
For the record, I’m not immune. Some of the things I have seen still hit me from time to time, but never in a way that interferes with enjoying my life. That’s the key.