Firefighter Behavioral Health: A Guest Blog from the National Volunteer Fire Council

This Guest Blog post is from the National Volunteer Fire Council. It is the featured article in our Firefighter & EMT News Resource: Flashpoint. To sign up to receive Flashpoint in your inbox once a month, click here

Prevent Tragedy by Focusing on Behavioral Health in the Fire Service

Behavioral health. It’s a subject not often talked about in the fire service, but it affects every department and emergency responder in some way or other. In a culture that frequently brushes aside how they are feeling, this is a hard subject to tackle. Yet behavioral health issues are just as serious as physical health and safety issues, and can be just as deadly if left unaddressed.

Behavioral health can cover a wide spectrum of health issues for firefighters and emergency responders. These can include stress or anxiety, sleep problems, depression, post traumatic stress disorder, and addiction, to name a few. If left untreated, many of these issues could result in serious or life-threatening physical health disorders, such as heart disease or high blood pressure. Some could also lead to safety concerns as firefighters are less prepared to do their jobs safely and to the best of their ability if they are battling one or more of these issues. In many instances, untreated psychological conditions could lead to firefighter suicide, a tragedy for the firefighter, their family, the department, and the entire fire service community.

Firefighters and EMTs respond to the worst crises – fires, traffic accidents, family abuse, shootings, and more. At the same time, they are balancing the needs of the fire department, their families, other outside interests, and in the case of volunteers, full time jobs. Add to the mix unpredictable sleep schedules, potential for unhealthy eating habits and lack of time for proper fitness, and a culture where talking about one’s feelings or difficulties may not be accepted, and it is no wonder that emergency responders have an increased risk for having one or more behavioral health concerns.

What Can Be Done

It is critically important that department leadership makes behavioral health as much of a priority in the department as physical health and safety. Having resources available to firefighters and EMTs who need help, creating a culture where talking about issues is encouraged, and breaking the stigma associated with behavioral health issues can provide the support a firefighter needs to seek treatment and prevent tragic outcomes such as suicide.

Mandatory behavioral health training is a critical first step in adopting a proactive approach within the department. Having effective retirement planning procedures in place is also important as many firefighters suffer from stress, depression, loss of identity, or other negative effects when faced with leaving the fire service after dedicating their lives to it.

Other proactive measures include having an Employee Assistance Program available to all department members, having workshops where counselors or other qualified entities (CISM teams, chaplains, training officers) address potential issues and how to recognize signs and symptoms of distress, and encouraging all fire academies to include at least four hours of behavioral health training for cadets.

Resources Available

In recent years, the fire service has started to become aware of how serious behavioral health is for emergency responders. The Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance (www.ffbha.org/) has collected information on 334 firefighters and 18 EMTs/Paramedics that have committed suicide. Departments have also begun to notice the wide range of negative outcomes that can result from ignoring behavioral health.

Fortunately, many resources are available to help departments and individuals address these issues and prevent potential negative outcomes.

Check out some of these resources- and click on the blue title to link to them!

National Fire Services Member Assistance Program

This toll-free hotline is available to all firefighters, EMS personnel, and their families who need immediate assistance with any problems affecting work or personal life, such as stress, depression, alcohol or drug addiction, financial management difficulties, critical incidents, relationship problems, work-related concerns, and more. Trained firefighters and counselors familiar with the fire and emergency services are available 24/7. Call 1-888-731-FIRE (3473) for help.

Firefighter Life Safety Initiative 13 – Behavioral Health

Initiative 13 of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation’s Life Safety Initiatives focuses on the psychological wellbeing of firefighters and their families. The new Initiative 13 web site contains important resources, training, and research, including the new model for exposure to potentially traumatic events and stress aid for fire and EMS personnel, which recognizes that not everyone responds the same to traumatic events.

Suicide in the Fire and Emergency Services: Adopting a Proactive Approach to Behavioral Health Awareness and Suicide Prevention

This report from the National Volunteer Fire Council explores the various behavioral health concerns faced by first responders and identifies resources and best practices for mental wellness and suicide prevention.

Preventing and Coping with Suicide in the Fire and Emergency Services

The National Volunteer Fire Council, with support from the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), developed this online training course focusing on suicide awareness and prevention. The course contains three modules that examines the signs and symptoms preceding suicide, highlights available resources for departments and individuals, and discusses the healing process when coping with a firefighter suicide. New students must create an account before registering for the course.

Behavioral Health Resources

The focus of the 2013 International Fire/EMS Safety and Health Week was behavioral health. This web site provides a lengthy resource and training listing to help firefighters and their departments focus on behavioral health and well-being.