Fire chiefs always have been responsible for their firefighters' health and safety. Today, however, that responsibility has expanded to include the emotional and behavioral issues that can be every bit as debilitating as a line-of-duty injury. It's a whole new world.
The world today is a dynamic force. It is driven by a global population that continues to strive for growth and change on a daily basis. Fire departments and their officers must adapt to constant change in order to keep traditions alive, so that we may never forget our past while we live in the present and look to the future. They also must adapt to the current generation of firefighters, which represents a new breed.
It is important that the term “new breed” is not viewed in a negative sense. These young men and women are smarter, more in tune with their feelings and more comfortable with technology, having grown up with it at their fingertips. What some are lacking is a sense of tradition and teamwork, as well as knowledge regarding the fire service. In this article we will examine a task that often makes older officers cringe: that is, dealing with the behavioral health and emotions of younger employees.
Not only do officers need to understand the new breed of firefighters, they need to be able to recognize when a member is suffering from emotional or behavioral issues caused by traumas experienced on the job, as well as outside influences in their lives, such as financial hardship, family illness or a significant lifestyle change, such as divorce. Such traumas can affect members in myriad ways.
Some may turn to addictions such as drugs, alcohol and gambling. Others might suffer from depression or profound anger, perhaps to the extent that they will contemplate suicide or homicide. I have spoken with several fire chiefs across the United States whose departments have suffered firefighter suicides. These tragic events hit the very foundation of the fire service because we, as firefighters, want to help others, yet we feel helpless when one of our own takes his life.
Who Can Help
As a guest speaker at the Illinois Fire Chiefs Convention in November 2009, I spoke about the need to increase awareness in the fire service regarding behavioral health, i.e., the actions one is displaying due to stress in one’s life. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a perfect example of a behavior that many within the fire service are exhibiting, but firefighters lack education on how it is affecting them or lack knowledge of where to go for treatment. If a firefighter who is suffering from PTSD doesn’t know what to do or where to go, then to whom do they turn for help? The answer — which I am expounding through fire-officer workshops — is that the person should be able to turn to his officer.
Does that sound scary to you as an officer? It should, if you lack the ability to recognize the signs and symptoms of behavioral and emotional distress. How would you react to one of your firefighters if he said to you, “Can we chat?” Would your first reaction be to tell him to gut it out, just like in the good-old days? Or would you say, “OK, let’s talk.” Would you send him to the department’s employee assistance program, or to its chaplain?
The suggestions offered in this article will not certify you as a counselor. It takes years of education and hundreds of hours working with clients to even scratch the surface of how to assist others with emotional or behavioral problems. During an internship for my master’s degree in counseling, I was afforded a tremendous opportunity to work with clients who were suffering from difficult mental-health issues, yet were always challenging themselves to become more educated and stronger in order to better deal with their disorders.
But what fire officers can do is become educated on the emotional and behavioral-health issues that are moving to the forefront in the fire service. They can understand and apply the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation’s 16 Life-Safety Initiatives. They can pay particular attention to Initiative 13, which reads as follows:
Firefighters and their families must have access to counseling and psychological support.
Educate yourselves on depression, addictions, suicide, stress, anxiety, anger, PTSD and other disorders and phobias. Learn how stress affects people and become familiar with simple coping skills that people can use during some down time, whether at the fire station or at home.
SIDEBAR: Behavioral Health at the Forefront
Another learning key for officers is to know who and where to direct your firefighters should a situation escalate to the point where professional help is needed. Officers should know their department’s procedures for such scenarios. They also should become aware of the advantages and disadvantages of the department’s employee assistance program. Not all fire departments have such a program, so it is important to know where a firefighter in need should be sent.
On that note, does your department have a chaplain? Chaplains are some of the most dedicated men and women in the fire service. They are eager to assist firefighters and their families in times of personal struggles and tragedies. Does your department actively train its chaplain? Does he regularly visit the firehouse?
If you need to locate a chaplain, or train one, contact Jennie Swanson, chaplain of the Hanover Park (Ill.) Fire Department. She is the current president of the Illinois Corps of Fire Chaplains. Another good idea is to contact Chaplain Bill Lotz, who is the director of the Federation of Fire Chaplains’ training institute.
Overcoming the Stigma
There is a stigma within the fire service that a firefighter might be considered weak if he seeks out help from professional counselors. It is time to work through those barriers and build a relationship between counselors and firefighters. Chief Ralph Webster of the Woodstock (Ill.) Fire Rescue District has begun a pilot program working with Advantage EAP, which is a unit of the Family Service and Community Mental Health Center in McHenry, Ill.
“One thing that we have done is to try and integrate mental health professionals from our EAP into our shifts,” Webster said, adding that fire officers need to advocate for EAPs in their departments and ensure that younger employees seek the help they need without fear of reprisal.
Depression, suicide, anxiety, anger, PTSD and other mental-health issues all have signs and symptoms that closely relate to each other, and a licensed professional is needed to sort through them and make an accurate diagnosis. However, a fire officer might be able to recognize some signs in an employee who is in need of an EAP referral. For instance:
- Is the employee experiencing difficulties at work?
- Is he regularly tardy for his shifts?
- Has there been a loss of interest in activities?
- Is she becoming isolated?
- Have you seen anger or rage in him?
- Does he appear anxious?
- Does she exhibit a lack of concentration?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, then the firefighter likely needs an EAP referral — or at least a counseling session with the department’s chaplain. Sometimes you will hear statements made by employees such as “I can’t do it,” or “I don’t deserve it.” These are behavioral signs to watch for. Maybe your department has firefighters returning from war. If they have not sought any counseling or treatment prior to returning to work, it would be very beneficial for you to talk with them.
The following is a recommended action plan for assisting your department and its firefighters should they decide to seek your counsel. It is not intended to replace any standard operating policies that your department already has in place.
- Assure the firefighter that anything said to you will be kept confidential, with only a few exceptions.
- Explain that those exceptions include physical abuse — to themselves or others, particularly children — and thoughts of suicide, and that you are obligated to inform the proper authorities upon hearing them.
- Understand the vital importance of the ability to listen. (We were given two ears and one mouth for a reason). Allow them to talk — opening up their emotions is a big step for them to take.
- Avoid jumping in with responses or solutions. Through discussion with you they might be able to develop their own solutions for dealing with the issues in their lives.
- Most important of all, show compassion. As Wayne Amore, retired chief of the McHenry Township (Ill.) Fire Protection District, once said so well, “To be in this business, everybody thinks you have to have thick skin and be tough. The main thing I always tell people is, you have to have compassion.”
These are difficult times for everyone and the fire service is not exempt from the problems of the world. Accordingly, your ability to communicate and relate to those under you will be tested severely. Over the long history of the fire service, there have been tremendous changes in equipment, operations and policies. Similarly, our understanding of how fires behave and how we need to act in order to limit injuries and deaths has evolved just as profoundly. It is now time for a culture change in the way officers look at and react to their employees.
We need to train officers not only in the ability to read how fires react and behave, but also in reading the reactions and behaviors of our people. The fire service has a tremendous task in getting firefighters to embrace the ultimate goal, which is to believe that it is OK for them to ask for help from professional counselors. This culture shift should start in our fire academies, which will allow new firefighters to carry this belief throughout their careers.
Yet, as we wait for this to develop, the responsibility will fall to the fire officers, which is an added responsibility that previous generations never had to contemplate. The crucial questions that need to be answered are these:
- Are you ready to step up and help your employees?
- Do you have training to handle these situations?
- Have you looked internally and addressed any personal issues that you might be having?
Undeniably, these are very difficult questions to answer. Welcome to the world of being an officer in the 21st century.
Jeff Dill is the founder of Counseling Services for Fire Fighters, which offers behavioral health support to firefighters and trains senior fire officers and educates clinicians on the benefits of understanding the life and emotions of firefighters. Dill holds a master’s degree in counseling and is a licensed professional counselor. He is currently a battalion chief at Palatine Rural Fire Protection District in Inverness, Ill.
- Stress Reliever: Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Not Without Warning: Firefighter suicides
- A Father's Grief: After his son's battle with depression and eventual suicide, one chief officer questions his ability to lead.