Blog Submission: Between a rock and a hard place

Matt Shobert medically retired as Fire Chief on December 30, 2014, after completing nearly 30 years in the Professional Fire Service with four departments, across two states.  He also served as Fire Chief for two other jurisdictions during his career.  He has a Master’s Degree in Organizational Management, a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Management and an Associate’s Degree in Fire Science.  He was also a 2007 graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program and has five times been accredited as a Chief Fire Officer Designee. 

Additionally, he completed the arduous 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride and 26.2 mile run – at "140.6" Ironman Arizona in Tempe on 11/17/13.  This level of fitness would help save his life on July 2, 2014.

Chief Shobert was nearly killed on the morning of July 2, 2014 and has greatly struggled with the troublesome aspects of his physical, mental, emotional and spiritual recovery from the traumatic and nearly fatal accident that lead to his premature exit from the fire service that was his life.

On the morning of July 2, 2014, an Engine Company from MFD and Matt were invited to an urban-interface (heavy brush near a developed area) area in Murrieta, CA. to observe a brush clearing operation, due to the tenuous fire conditions in Southern California this time of the year; where a simple spark could start a conflagration.

He arrived at the clearing operation prior to his Engine Company and a brush-clearing tractor was already clearing brush.  He exited his Fire Chief’s vehicle with a Garmin weather device to check temperature, wind speed and humidity.  

Of course, he didn’t realize it at the time, but at around 09:00 AM, a fist-sized rock was launched a distance greater than half a football field, by a Bobcat with a commercial mower attachment.  The rock struck him on the left jaw, just below the bottom corner of his mouth, ripping off the lower left side of his face and mandible.

He awoke face down in the dirt, unaware of what the hell was happening.  The first thing he recalled was having numbness and tingling in his arms/hands.  Was he stroking out?  Was he having a heart attack?  “Why in the hell was I laying face down in the dirt,” he thought?

He tried to get up and couldn’t.  It was then that he noticed the profuse bleeding from the area of his face where his lower jaw used to be.  He quickly figured out that he was bleeding to death.  The Bobcat operator was nowhere in sight.  The fire chief was alone and dying.  Matt eventually made it to his feet and recalled a spare T-shirt in the back seat of his Tahoe.  He stuffed it into the bottom of his face and drove his chief’s vehicle a few hundred yards to a maintenance shop.  He held his face together with one hand and picked up his radio’s microphone with the other.  In a garbled voice, he told his dispatch center that he thought he’d been shot in the face and needed immediate medical care.

His firefighters and dispatchers saved his life with quick action and critical care, Inland Valley Medical Center further stabilized him, Mercy Air flew the critically injured fire chief to Loma Linda UMC, where a team of surgeons worked for five and a half additional hours saving his life.

His fitness level and intuitive training assisted in his survivability. The doctors said, "98% of the general population would have died in the dirt that day."

He has been through six comprehensive surgeries over the past two years. He suffered a minor TBI and struggles with PTSD.  

He has had thoughts of suicide and struggles with his ongoing physical recovery, TBI and PTSD.

Matt’s wife of 26 years – Tami, has helped greatly during his recovery.  She has stood stoically beside him, throughout the difficult and comprehensive recovery process.

Additionally, “Butters,” his PTSD Service Dog has been essential to Matt’s survivability, as well.

It is his hope and goal that sharing his story will help bring firefighter suicide, PTSD and stress issues to the forefront.  The fire service always preaches physical fitness, but mental health issues are a private and “dirty little secret.”  

Below is his personal mantra that actually saved his life:

“Today’s physical, mental and emotional preparedness, determines tomorrow’s performance.  Train like your life depends on it – because it does!

The Fire Fighter Behavioral Health Alliance’s (ffbha.org) Director, Jeff Dill, actually pointed Matt in the right direction during the darkest hours of Chief Shobert’s recovery process; suicide had become a viable option for him.

As part of his physical, mental, emotional and spiritual recovery, he plans on competing Ironman AZ 70.3 in October 2016 as part of his “full-circle” recovery process.

-Matt Shobert, Fire Chief (retired)