Why firefighters need to talk about PTSD and suicide
Firefighting is a tough job, and firefighters need to know it’s OK to talk about it
By Jinnie Chua, American Military University
Whether it’s suddenly losing a fellow firefighter or feeling the weight of stressful situations, dealing with painful emotions is an inherent part of being a firefighter. If left buried or ignored, these stresses can lead to more serious conditions like depression, PTSD, and even suicide. Since 2015, more firefighters have been lost to suicide than line of duty deaths.
Giving firefighters the support to properly address and manage their stress is essential if they’re to continue doing their job. This starts with raising awareness about the issues they face, which can still be a difficult task in today’s fire service culture.
WHAT CAUSES PTSD?
Firefighters today aren’t just dealing with structure fires and vehicle accidents; they’re also responding to incidents like terrorist attacks, mass shootings, and natural disasters.
“Dealing with these horrific scenes and picking bodies up off the streets… it’s tough,” said Jeff Dill, a retired fire captain and founder of the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance (FBHA), an organization dedicated to supporting the mental health and wellness of firefighters.
In such incidents or when a firefighter returns from a particularly bad call, the trauma can hit instantly. But for many in the fire service, PTSD doesn’t necessarily stem from a single incident. All firefighters undergo elements of trauma in their line of work and over a period of time, these experiences start to bank in their minds.
“We’ve always said in the fire service, how call-after-call builds up,” Dill said.
Regular debriefings can help firefighters decompress from incidents.
Kevin Kupietz, a fire instructor at the Roanoke Rapids (NC) Fire Department and a faculty member in the Emergency and Disaster Management program at American Military University, believes that regular debriefings can be a good opportunity for firefighters unload any troubles and identify signs that others are struggling.
“Fire officers should know that what’s not being said is just as important for gauging the effect of a call on their crews,” Kupietz said. “It can take just another straw to break the camel’s back.”
Kupietz has seen firsthand how firefighters avoid the issue. In his more than 20 years as a firefighter and paramedic, he’s yet to have a coworker approach him directly with their troubles. He’s concentrated his efforts in recent years on making sure individuals have opportunities to express the struggles they might be facing.
“Talking has proven to be the best thing,” he said. “Now when we come back from a bad call, we’ll all sit together and eventually we’ll start talking about what happened.”
ENDING THE STIGMA
A key reason PTSD hasn’t been talked about enough in the fire service community is the expectation many firefighters feel to fit a certain mold. Firefighters have always upheld an image of hardiness and strength. The idea of betraying this image can make it difficult for them to come forward and seek help.
“Many firefighters think it’s a sign of weakness [to ask for help],’” Kupietz said. “Those of us in leadership positions are trying to change that idea.”
“You put this uniform on and you’re supposed to act brave, strong and courageous,” Dill adds. “You’re supposed to give help, not ask for it.”
The openness and conversation around PTSD and suicide also differs by region.
“Some don’t want to talk about it, don’t recognize it, don’t think there’s a problem,” Dill explained. “The Northeast is very steeped in tradition and they’re not so open to change. Some of those families have generations of firefighters that go back 200 years – there are states in the West that aren’t even that old.”
What’s clear is that more needs to be done to recognize the issue, educate the firefighter community, and ultimately take measures to prevent firefighters from taking their own lives.
“We have to make sure we protect our own,” Kupietz said.
About the author:
Jinnie Chua is the assistant editor at In Public Safety, an American Military University sponsored website. She graduated from New York University in 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism and Sociology. At In Public Safety, Jinnie covers issues and trends relevant to professionals in law enforcement, fire services, emergency management and national security. To contact the author, please send an email to IPSauthor@apus.edu.