Utah fire departments work towards improving firefighter mental health

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Mike Stevens, Captain of Salt Lake City Fire Station 12, realized he needed help when, unable to sleep, he found himself chopping firewood in his neighbor’s back yard in the middle of the night.

For Stevens, the cumulative stress of all the calls he received at the fire station over time began to feel like weights stacking up on his shoulders.

“As I would progress on and not deal with those issues, they manifested in the form of nightmares. When it started happening more frequently, it started freaking me out,” he said. “When it started happening every night for a month, it was all I could stand to not go off the deep end.”

Like many firefighters across the country, Stevens experienced mental health problems as a direct result of the stresses of his job.

Statistics from the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance show that in 2015, 2016, and 2017, more firefighters died by suicide than in the line of duty, demonstrating that firefighter mental health has been largely overlooked for years.

“We’ve gotten really aggressive about our safety in the fire service. We’ve learned a lot about firefighting. We’ve become very safe about firefighting, and in that process, we’ve also kind of neglected our mental health, and we saw those suicide rates climb to an uncomfortable rate,” said Jordon Petersen, a Battalion Chief with the Murray City Fire Department.

Petersen pursued a Master’s degree and Doctorate degree in Psychology and is a national speaker on first responder mental health. He has personally known one firefighter who died in the line of duty in comparison with six who have died by suicide.

Petersen said he first experienced the suicide of a coworker in the very beginning of his career in the fire service.

“I didn’t know about the stigmas of fire service, and I said, “Can you guys believe this? What was this about? Did you guys see this coming? What happened?” And it was sad to see that crew 15 years ago kind of turn away from the topic. No one was really comfortable talking about it, and in the end, I kind of got a quick statement from one of the senior firefighters,” said Petersen. “He said, “Its not the first time that it’s happened and it probably won’t be the last.””

However, Petersen acknowledged that the stigma around mental health in the fire service is changing, and there are now resources at both the state and local level to help firefighters. The Murray City Fire Department has taken steps to educate firefighters on what to do if they are experiencing symptoms of poor mental health.

“We teach them everything from the big things- if you get to a point where you feel life isn’t worth living or if you’re struggling with relationships, but we also teach them about insomnia. We teach them about sleep deprivation. We teach them about when substance abuse gets to be a little out of hand. We teach them the small things as well that carry over,” he said.

According to Petersen, people often think that the biggest stressors of the job involve the fires or death that firefighters are sometimes exposed to. However, some of the biggest stressors are the job’s day-to-day activities.

“We see a lot of problems with cumulative stress. What happens to a firefighter after serving as a firefighter for years and years? How that stress builds up over time…For the most part, we start to see that it’s the long nights, it’s the difficult shifts, it’s the time away from our family that really become some of the biggest stresses that add on themselves over years and years.”

In fact, Petersen said that experiencing stress and even mental health struggles is just a natural part of the job.

“We want our firefighters to serve the community, and we want them to enjoy serving the community. As long as they enjoy doing that, they are naturally going to get heavy-hearted when they see the difficulties of the people they serve, and so with that, they naturally are going to have times in which they struggle,” he said. “That’s okay, and for the first time, we are letting them know that’s okay.”

Stevens eventually reached out for help. His supervisor at the time allowed him to take the time needed to get back on track.

“There was no pressure. There was no fear of repercussion, and it made it easier…” Stevens said. “I know that is one of the biggest stigmas in the fire service… that if you think you think you have to ask for help, you show weakness.”

However, Stevens has found this stigma to be untrue.

“It takes a bigger person to ask for help when they need it,” he said.

Russ Jensen, Captain of Murray City Fire Department, recognized he needed help when he turned down plans to go fishing with his dad.

“… I didn’t really have a whole lot of energy to do anything or a want to do anything,” Jensen recalled. “… I was like, that’s not me. I love my dad, and I love fishing. They mean so much to me, yet I’m turning them away. I knew at that point there was something significantly wrong.”

Jensen said he began experiencing feelings of worthlessness and had plans to commit suicide. According to Jensen, firefighters need to present a level of confidence when responding to emergencies and difficult situations. Due to this mindset, he found it difficult to reach out for help himself.

“If you weren’t a type-A personality before, it kind of creates that in you if you want to be any good at your job,” he said. “When you’re dealing with difficult emotional problems, you’re not sure how to express that. You haven’t been trained how to express that.”

Though Jensen tried therapy, he ultimately found the help he needed through a peer support group offered through the Murray City Fire Department.

“… I needed to reach out to people that I felt support from, and the biggest support that I had was within the fire service. I spent most of my life with the guys and gals that I work with, and they’re the ones that I connect to. They are the ones that understand how these things are in their own lives, and they can relate,” he said.

Though Jensen said it was initially challenging to reach out to his coworkers about what he was experiencing, they responded with immediate empathy.

Statistics

The Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance confirms statistics surrounding firefighter suicides. The Alliance’s founder, Jeff Dill, is a retired fire captain and estimates that they have about a 50 percent reporting rate.

The Alliance found that in 2015, 2016, and 2017, the number of firefighter and EMT deaths by suicide were higher than deaths in the line of duty. The number of reported deaths by suicide are shown below:

2019 – 70

(57 FF & 13 EMT)

2018 – 105
(84 FF & 21 EMT) (1 CS)

2017 – 119
(102 FF & 17 EMT)

2016 – 143
(105 FF & 38 EMT)

2015 – 150
(114 FF & 36 EMT)

2014 – 126
(93 FF & 33 EMT

According to statistics from Professional Firefighters of Utah, 43 percent of firefighters in Utah exhibit signs of PTSD. 19 percent have a plan to commit suicide, and 15 percent have made a suicide attempt. These statistics largely coincide with the national average.

Resources

Both the Murray City Fire Department and Salt Lake City Fire Department offer peer support groups and inform their firefighters of available resources.

For those who do not feel comfortable coming forward to their supervisors about mental health struggles, there are resources available which maintain confidentiality.

The Salt Lake Fire Department provided the following list of programs and resources for first responders struggling with mental health:

SLC Strong

Peer Support

Department Chaplain

CFC Program (prevention)

International Association of Firefighters peer counseling: Provides free 24-hour a day counseling to all firefighters and their family members

“A lot of guys don’t understand the resources that are available to them. There are resources at the local level. There are resources within the organization. There are resources at the state level that will help them,” said Jensen. “They just need to understand that is there.”

Though Jensen experienced struggles with mental health in the past, he said he still loves being a firefighter.

“There are ways to navigate this and still do really well,” he said. “I mean, I love my job. This is the best job in the world. I would never do anything else.”

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