By Peggy Sweeney
Being a fire chief isn't an easy job.Whether you lead a volunteer company of 10 or a career department of several thousand, the physical and emotional wellness of your men and women always is your top priority.
But a large number of fire departments still don't address mental and emotional health, focusing on number-gathering rather than firefighter needs. In other words, we take count of those who suffer from PTSD or have died by suicide rather than implementing programs that provide lifesaving information on depression, post-traumatic stress and suicide prevention.
I ask each and every one of you to step back and candidly review your attitude about the mental and emotional wellness of your department. Do you criticize or shun a firefighter because he or she is struggling with traumatic calls? Do you turn a deaf ear when members of your department do the same? The mantra “suck it up and go on” is a cliché of the past.
Are you in tune with other struggles your firefighters may be having; such as, alcoholism or other addictive behaviors, marital problems, grief over the death of a loved one, financial stresses, etc.? If a firefighter has been permanently injured on or off the job or has retired, do you provide a welcoming environment at your station for them to visit and still feel as though they are a part of the profession they love and miss? Many disabled and retired firefighters want and need the camaraderie.
Is your office a “safe place” for any firefighter to enter and seek help in coping with these issues? Do you provide printed materials and training programs on topics such as; addiction, building healthy relationships, anger management, coping with grief, depression, PTSD, suicide intervention and prevention? Do you make available qualified mental health professionals for counseling without firefighters fearing that they will be labeled as weak or unfit? If your department has suffered the line of duty or non-duty related death of a firefighter, have you provided a program on healing grief for your department and the grieving family and friends?
If your department has been tragically touched by the suicide of one of your own, did you, as the chief, lead your department in showing respect and appreciation for their service as a firefighter as well as comforting their loved ones? Or did you stigmatize the death and turn your back on their grieving family?
Where do you stand on these issues? Remember, chiefs suffer from depression, PTSD, and thoughts of suicide also. Your rank does not elevate you to super human status. The death of one firefighter to suicide should be statistic enough. Let your voice be a positive change in the fire service.
For more information
- Grieving Behind the Badge blog
- Grieving Behind the Badge newsletter
- North American Fire Fighter Veteran Network
- Picking Up the Pieces: Raising Awareness for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
- West Coast Trauma Retreat
- Suicide Prevention and Crisis Intervention Guidebook, San Jose Fire Department
Peggy Sweeney is a bereavement educator and president of The Sweeney Alliance. She has developed and taught workshops for coping with grief and trauma including the "Grieving Behind the Badge" program for emergency response professionals. Sweeney is editor of a monthly newsletter by the same name. She previously was a staff writer for the Los Angeles Fire Fighter newspaper. Sweeney is a member of the Texas Line of Duty Death Task Force, secretary of the Comfort (Texas) Volunteer Fire Department, and a former EMT-B.