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By Asst. Chief Matthew Hanson and Marcella Blum (Published in Fire Rescue magazine and online, www.firefighternation.com)
April 4, 2023

As young firefighters, we learn of the many different tools we carry and the importance of using the right tool for the job. We quickly identify that as firefighters we are problem solvers, often modifying old tools to adapt to a new building construction challenge, new automotive trend, or simply a better way to do our jobs. Again, we are problem solvers.

Recognizing the inherent challenges of the job expectations for first responders is key to building awareness of the appropriate tools to support a purposeful and sustainable career. To address these challenges and concerns, we assign safety officers, offer nearly unlimited training, and task different committees with ensuring member safety. This career has the tendency to leave scars with us, there is no debating that. There are the physical and visible scars: the knee injuries, the shoulder repairs, and the miscellaneous dings and dents many of us will sustain over the course of our careers. However, what are we doing to address the emotional or behavioral scars many of us carry? What tools do we offer our firefighters to address the challenges this job can put on us emotionally and behaviorally, and are we giving our people the right tools for this?

First responders are susceptible to vicarious or direct trauma through recurring exposure to potentially life-threatening circumstances and witnessing medical emergencies or death, which can inhibit mental well-being. Additionally, the job requirements continue to necessitate high expectations for emotional stamina and healthy compartmentalization (having the ability to distinguish work from personal life). Historically, there have not been consistent or readily available tools for supporting individual mental health in this field. With this understanding, our department, the Elburn & Countryside Fire Protection District (ECFPD), has partnered with our Employee Assistance Program (EAP) provider, Perspectives Ltd., to provide essential tools and support for our fire personnel.

We are working to offer tools, resources, and guidance to our members. This must be done in an environment where talking, processing, and seeking out professional help are encouraged and accessible. Through our partnership with Perspectives, Ltd., in the past two years, we have been able to launch a Provider Behavioral Health Review/Wellness Initiative for our members. Through this initiative, our firefighters are offered the opportunity to meet with licensed mental health professionals for bi-annual mental health check-ins either in a “zoom style” meeting or in person. This review provides an opportunity for our firefighters to refamiliarize themselves with the services offered through the EAP and are provided support to address the psychological impacts of trauma and learn how to effectively cope, along with assessing other life stressors and being encouraged toward proper modalities of care and ongoing support.

It is important to note that the culture of first responders across the nation has been notorious for having a low tolerance for individual vulnerability while also portraying a stigma against seeking mental health services. With the statistics on mental health concerns, substance abuse, and suicidality in firefighters, we can no longer ignore the very real impacts this line of work has on individuals. In some cases, we at ECFPD have seen a benefit to mandating an entire shift or crew to participate in one of these mental health check-ins. Recently, based on the suggestion of our company officers, we decided to mandate an entire crew after a stretch of particularly stressful calls to individually participate in a zoom-style check-in. The feedback from many members who were mandated to participate was positive, and we hope it will filter out to others. This is a step in the right direction.

Research has shown elevated levels of depression and posttraumatic stress symptoms in firefighters (Stanley et al., 2017), and another study found that 50 percent of firefighters reported heavy or binge alcohol use (Haddock, Poston, Jahnke, & Jitnarin, 2017). Maladaptive coping mechanisms are often used to avoid symptoms of stress or trauma but, when given the proper tools and support, first responders can lead a healthy life while sustaining a meaningful career.

Reports on suicide prevalence
Current and Retired U.S. Firefighters (n= 1,027)
Ideation 46.8%
Plans 19.2%
Attempts 4.6%

General U.S. Population
Ideation 13.5%
Plans 3.9%
Attempts 4.6%
(Stanley, Hom, Hagan, & Joiner, 2015)

ECPFD and Perspectives Ltd. continue to work together to shift the paradigm toward a more balanced view of mental fortitude–honoring the courage it takes to be vulnerable, the importance of emotional regulation, and acknowledging the impacts of trauma. Through this initiative, we are improving the overall well-being of the first responders, providing genuine hope to those who are struggling and offering the appropriate tools to ensure they stay healthy and safe.

A new initiative may normally require data and a measurable standard to prove the benefits and long-term goals. However, when it comes to taking care of your people, the benefits are immeasurable.

This initiative has complete support from our Administrative Team, Board of Trustees, and bargaining unit (IAFF Local 4749) and is designed to give tools to our people so the emotional scars we carry may be a little lighter. We hope that in sharing this program we may all work together to identify different pathways we can offer to our members so everyone may be reached.

Our goal as a profession is always to set our members up for success on the fireground. We encourage you all to work on ways we can set our members up for success in life and give them tools to succeed long into retirement. The first step is creating a genuine environment where talking, processing, and seeking out professional help are encouraged and accessible. The next is to provide access to different tools so our members can access the right tool for the job.

References:

Haddock, C. K., Poston, W. S. C., Jahnke, S. A., & Jitnarin, N. (2017). Alcohol use and problem drinking among women firefighters. Women’s Health Issues, 27(6), 632–638. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.whi.2017.07.003.

Stanley, I. H., Boffa, J. W., Hom, M. A., Kimbrel, N. A., & Joiner, T. E. (2017). Differences in psychiatric symptoms and barriers to mental health care between volunteer and career firefighters. Psychiatry Research, 247, 236–242. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychres.2016.11.037.

Stanley, I. H., Hom, M. A., Hagan, C. R., & Joiner, T. E. (2015). Career prevalence and correlates of suicidal thoughts and behaviors among firefighters. Journal of Affective Disorders, 187, 163–171. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j. jad.2015.08.007.

BIOS:

Marcella Blum, LCPC, was previously an organizational service specialist and mental health therapist at Perspectives. She provides dedicated care to teams within top-ranking universities, hospital systems, municipalities, and school districts in multiple capacities of support. In this role, she facilitates trainings and workshops on topics relating to well-being, responds to critical incidents, provides trauma debriefing, and collaborates with leadership and HR to create a culture of well-being.

Matt Hanson has served the Elburn & Countryside Fire Protection District as a firefighter/paramedic, lieutenant, shift supervisor, as well as the MABAS Division 13 Technical Rescue Team and Training Committee. He is the assistant chief of personnel and administration. Hanson has a bachelor’s degree in social work and a certificate in case management from Indiana University.


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