Firefighters generally respond best when confronted with an issue head-on: no tired clichés, pointless stories or five-syllable words — just the cold, hard facts. But when the topic of stress or mental health comes up, they tend to scurry to the safety of their bunkrooms like a family of cockroaches when the kitchen light flashes on.
The fact is that the fire service does an inadequate job of meeting the emotional needs of its membership. Although this isn't true of all departments, those agencies where the problem does exist also are likely to have fostered an environment of organizational deceit and hypocrisy. If your veins are popping at the insinuation, it either means that you've already addressed the issue or that I have struck a nerve.
To test the validity of this claim, try conducting a simple survey within your department. In it, provide a mechanism for your membership to respond confidentially to a single question: “What would you do if a firefighter arrived to work five minutes late, obviously impaired and reeking of alcohol?” If a majority of your responses led through the chain-of-command to an effective employee assistance program, congratulations. If not, you aren't alone.
The truth is that most of the membership will choose to arrange for sick leave and send the intoxicated subject home, likely alone in the same car that was driven illegally to the station. Some will call a cab, and some may slip the person between the cold sheets of a bed and mumble a prayer asking for a quiet morning. Others will call the union looking for advice, but few have enough faith or trust in the system to seek help. Instead, an appropriate sense of duty will be rewarded with cries that they have betrayed some unspoken code.
Stress has consequences
It's certainly no surprise that most people at some time in their lives have faced the emotional stress of dealing with a major illness or death of a family member, divorce, financial hardships, or career changes. But consider the years of unchecked anxiety that a firefighter adds to the cocktail by getting up four or five times a night, seeing the face of a listless child who resembles his or her daughter, or enduring endless labor — management chess matches.
Now add a second job pouring concrete or sweating pipe to put the kids through college. What of the promotion that went to the greenhorn who doesn't appreciate “the way we used to do it” or the chain-smoking fossil who “won't let go of the past?” Finally, consider the various effects of depression, alcohol and drug addiction, racism, religious convictions, sexual orientation, and pure burnout.
In effect, if we don't provide an effective mechanism of release, we are putting all these influences in a brown paper bag, shaking them up vigorously, and turning them loose on a community that has its own issues.
In today's health-conscious society, many organizations have already recognized the value of regular physical check-ups. Just as you visit the dentist regularly for a minor cleaning to avoid the pain and expense of a root canal, once a year the membership gets stuck with a needle, strapped to a treadmill and humbly subjected to the callous criticism of some inanimate body fat — testing device. If you're a man over 40, you will be introduced into a whole new world of rubber gloves, ice-cold lubricant and mind-numbing humility.
Despite all the reports and data available to suggest the importance of having an effective mental health program, most departments miss the mark. Whether through some false sense of bravado, sheer avoidance or simple ignorance, it's clear that the fire service takes better care of its fire apparatus than its members' emotional well-being.
Every so often, the department's mechanic lifts the hood to change the oil, tighten the belts and grease the zerk fittings. It's time that we pledge to grease our members' emotional zerks. Administrators must make a commitment to provide more than the cursory employee assistance program indiscriminately designed for the masses. They can't ignore the special needs of those people who work within an industry that relies on the pain of others for its job security. Our members deserve all of the psychological assistance our system has to offer.
Create coalition to support counseling
Getting started won't be the same for every department. Some of you have solid labor — management relationships; others can't agree if socks should be considered part of the uniform. Both sides need to give a little.
Management must agree to release some control to develop a sincere partnership with the union leadership, one that's bent on making a difference. We entrust our members to save the lives of others; we should do the same for them. If you're gnashing your teeth at the thought of it, count to 10 and then review the goals of the employee assistance program. Chances are that it seemed comforting that the program exists — technically, it fills a prescribed need — but if the providing agency has a generalist approach to assessing their customers, odds are that you are already behind the eight-ball.
The union leadership must trust that management has the best interest of employees at heart. Again, for some relationships that can be difficult. Responses from the labor board are meant to reflect the tone and direction of the group. It stands to reason that the scars left from previous battles will be tough to overcome, but the risk is a worthy investment in the health and welfare of department members.
With a one-eye-open agreement firmly in hand, the next step is to sit in the same room and agree that a problem actually exist. Mental health professionals don't always see eye to eye on how to accurately collect the data relating to an emergency responder's accumulation of stress, much less the short- or long-term effects. Suffice it to say that stress does exist, and it can get nasty if left unchecked. The combined byproducts of a member's personal and professional lives may range from general agitation to major substance abuse, or even thoughts of suicide. Intuitively, you already knew that, but what you may be unaware of is how vulnerable your organization is to the heaviest effects of stress.
Your newly formed coalition will likely include your agency's friendly human resources professional, who needs to be on the front line when the issues of control, budget and training are discussed. Depending on the relationship with your employee assistance program provider, you may want a representative from that office on the team as well. Your EAP provider can help establish the guidelines for a practical operating procedure.
Your goal is to identify qualified counselors through an interview process or to train existing ones in the nuances of the fire service. You likely will find that many already have a counseling background in law enforcement but have very little knowledge of the differences between police officers and firefighters. You also will find that they're generally eager to learn. Ultimately, their style of counseling should be consistent with the needs of the membership by reflecting the values, norms and attitudes of the organization's culture.
Open communications are key
Creating a bond between the crews and the counselors is critical. Enough of a stigma already exists surrounding mental health — counselors should be seen as people before they are as shrinks. This ought to be done in a comfortable setting; ride-alongs and relaxed training sessions will help to demystify the process. It also will give the new face a look at what we do first-hand. A couple of 24-hour shifts, dinner with the cynical gang, and a trauma or two should do the trick. Don't be surprised when firefighters initially challenge the motives of the counselor. It won't be until department members are comfortable enough to cut loose with a few tasteless jokes and invite them back before a crack in the armor will take hold.
You also need to create a communication bridge between the department's line officers and the counselor, one built on trust and confidentiality. Design a new policy that empowers officers, under specific circumstances, to refer a subordinate confidentially. If the employee in question refuses, then the offer can be documented accordingly and sent up the chain.
For those organizations with hard-line, zero-tolerance policies, it may be difficult to allow one shift member to refer another to a counselor without tracking it up the paper trail. Most would say that if an on-duty issue is severe enough to warrant a phone call to a counselor, it deserves attention from a white shirt — and they would probably be right.
In a perfect world all members would get the help they need, and the department wouldn't lose its investment in an otherwise productive employee. But you have to ask yourself (or a trusted member of the union): Is the current system effective? Are the issues being swept under the rug, or are they being scoffed at or ignored as a threat? If honesty prevails, you'll probably discover that many of your members will do everything possible to protect their brothers and sisters from what they perceive as severe retribution or loss of employment, regardless of what your policies dictate or your mission implies.
Even with a clear set of guidelines in place, regular training and significant buy-in, the process most likely will fail. Count to 10, adjust, train and get back on the horse. Change won't happen overnight. Psychology is not a perfect science, and neither is personnel management. We can no longer scurry into the darkness. There's just too much information out there that reinforces the benefits of a healthy discussion with a savvy psychologist who understands the unique culture of the fire service.
A 22-year fire service veteran, Scott Ferguson is the deputy chief of operations for the Peoria (Ariz.) Fire Department. He has completed the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy, the Rocky Mountain Leadership Program and the City of Vancouver Leadership Institute, and he recently earned a master's degree in management and psychology.