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The Importance of Addressing Behavioral Health in Firefighters

Photo: Courtesy of Aidan Bartos

The first of the 16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives stresses the need for a culture change within the fire service relating to safety. Creating a culture that prioritizes safety and health is critical to protecting responders and is the responsibility of the full fire service community.

Firefighters have embraced the image of being tough and invincible. Many are resistant to health and safety programs and departmental cultural change. This leaves responders susceptible to a myriad of life-threatening and life-changing health and safety concerns.

Mental health risks

One area that is especially challenging to address is mental health. Firefighters and emergency responders have a high risk for many behavioral health issues, including post-traumatic stress injury (PTSI), addiction, and depression.

In 2017, the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance verified 103 firefighter suicides, which is higher than the number of line-of-duty deaths during the same period. This number is likely low; it is believed that only 40 percent of firefighter suicides are reported. 

Emergency responders regularly face situations that most people don’t experience in a lifetime. Being on the front  lines of the worst incidents and being frequently placed in dangerous circumstances brings its emotional challenges.

Changing the culture

Creating a culture shift in the fire service is necessary to fully address these issues. Responders need to realize that it is okay to admit they are struggling and feel comfortable seeking help. Department leaders are key to ushering in these changes.

Training is an important factor. Officers and line firefighters need to be trained to recognize signs of mental distress and learn what to do if they see someone in need. Departments also need to provide resources and assistance for those struggling with behavioral health issues.

Leading the charge

Agencies that are proactive in providing training, mental health wellness and recovery programs and encourage firefighters to seek help when they are in distress are doing due diligence to help change the culture of the fire service. Only through education and with support from leadership will the fire service change the needless stigma surrounding mental health and suicide.

Chief Kenn Fontenot, [email protected]

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