SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 News) – It can be difficult for families to fully understand the emotional toll that comes with being a first responder.
“It’s hard to ask for help,” said West Jordan Fire Department Training Captain Joy Stearns.
Firefighting– it’s a calling and the pressure of working in life or death situations on a constant basis can lead to emotional burnout.
Despite the inherent challenges, Captain Stearns always knew she wanted to fight fires at 15 years old.
“My goal is to be just as excited and mentally strong at the end of my career as the beginning,” she said.
Mid-career, Captain Stearns and her fellow firefighters in West Jordan were dealt a devastating blow.
“Somebody that we worked with at West Jordan he committed suicide,” she said. “And so that really hit us close to home.”
But another tragic event would hit even closer to home for the captain. Her husband, Bureau of Land Management Wildland Captain Brett Stearns, lost his life in 2009 while on the job.
“So going through a very personal difficult time when I wasn’t even sure I could come back, and to the point that I even thought of committing suicide. And, how that would just take the pain away,” she said. “If I could be in that spot, anybody could be in that spot.”
Because of her devoted friends, Captain Stearns was finally able to walk out of the darkness and into the light. In this moment of clarity, she was able to turn her personal tragedy into triumph for her fellow first responders by enrolling in a mental health graduate program.
“Looking at that time our only option was the Employee Assistance Program, and thinking there is some way we can teach ourselves to become stronger,” she said.
Captain Stearns received her master’s degree and is now the mental health coordinator for the Utah Fire and Rescue Academy.
The captain teaches firefighters and their loved ones how to identify and come with mental stressors.
“I’m usually that person that I want the answers right then, but at the same point, I’ve seen the value of taking a step back,” said Stephanie Parry.
Parry plans to marry into the firefighter family this December, and she will have a special group of people to support her.
“To have the support system of spouses and to say I understand and you understand, and we are in it together is priceless,” said Lynne Becraft.
Becraft married North Davis Fire District Chief Mark Becraft a year ago. She understands not all communication is verbal when it comes to dealing with the weight of the call.
“I walked into the darkroom and he was sobbing and he had been through something he hadn’t been through in 32 years of his career,” she told ABC4’s Jason Nguyen. “And I just held him, which sounds not macho for him but I just held him and said it’s going to be OK. And that’s all he needed at that point.”
That’s why Chief Becraft says he wanted to get help to his fellow firefighters and their families.
“We’re providing an outlet to somebody who doesn’t even work for us that is an equal to them, or a peer, they can talk to relate to and hopefully that will help,” said North Davis Fire District Chief Becraft.
Making it possible to have long careers within the first responder service.
On Friday night on ABC4 News at 10p, we will focus on a unique program in Weber County where dogs have saved deputies, officers, firefighters, and veterans’ lives.
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