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3 steps to a fire service behavioral health size-up

The VCOS report issues directives for advocating for firefighter mental health education, resources and support programs


Today’s firefighter is faced with multiple challenges professionally and personally. The volume of information that is thrown at us daily creates a huge stress on our mental and physical wellbeing. What does organizational leadership do to ensure that our firefighters are healthy physically and mentally?

The International Association of Fire Chiefs and the IAFC Volunteer and Combination Officers Section  released the “Yellow Ribbon Report – Under the helmet: Performing an internal size-up – A proactive approach to ensuring mental health and wellness,” earlier this year. The report was generated after a meeting in Tampa, Fla. The task group, put together by VCOS Chairman Tim Wall, consisted of 14 people including mental health professionals, suicide survivors, fire chiefs and chaplains. The group met over two days trying to bring this issue together to release a ribbon report.

One of the major hurdles to overcome at the local level is the stigma attached by many to those who report mental health problems, despite the clear impact of cumulative stress on our emotional health.

Education programs need to be developed for company officers, as well as cadets and chief officers. (Photo/City of Alexandria, Va.)
Education programs need to be developed for company officers, as well as cadets and chief officers. (Photo/City of Alexandria, Va.)

Every first responder on the job has had overwhelming experiences that create a stress-related reaction. There is a price to pay for ignoring stress and the impact it has on our survival.

The VCOS has created three action statements to implement a behavioral health program.

1. Integrate emotional wellness at firefighter recruit level

During fire recruit school, the issues of emotional and behavioral health, as well as dealing with cumulative stress, must become integrated into the initial education:

  • Recruit academies should stop glamorizing the tragic circumstances these recruits will experience.
  • The traumatic circumstances must be discussed with candor.
  • The emotional impact those tragic circumstances can wreak on the first responders and the steps to take to minimize the long-term effect must be discussed.

2. Increase mental health knowledge and resources

Fire departments need to become familiar with emotional and behavioral health issues and methods of reducing their impact on members. Fire departments need to increase knowledge and resources to support these complex issues.

3. Provide access to behavioral health education and support programs

Education programs need to be developed for company officers, as well as cadets and chief officers. Access to this behavioral health education must become part of the professional development process. Chief officers need to accept it is incumbent on them to accept responsibility for facilitating and maintaining  the emotional and physical health of their staff. The report discusses the signs and symptoms of stress and provides excellent tips for dealing with the stress.

The report recommends a model infrastructure support system that includes:

  • A peer support program,
  • A chaplaincy program, and
  • Utilization of employee assistance programs and treatment programs.

There is a list of questions to be used as part of an organizational internal size-up. The final portion of the report has two personal stories, one of those who have experienced a son who died by suicide and one of a suicide survivor. The report is available as a free download at vcos.org.

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