Firefighter behavioral health: Taking care of our own

Let's all help our staff stay healthy, both physically and mentally

Editor's note: In this exclusive article to mark the NVFC's National Firefighter Health Week, Chief Mike Thompson outlines the behavioral health program recently launched at the Spokane Valley Fire Department.

By Fire Chief Mike Thompson
Spokane Valley, Wash., Fire Department

As a prior military man, I am familiar with the concept of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and have seen veterans who were undiagnosed and unable to deal with the effects of this disorder.

In the fire service, it occurred to me that we had done a great job of maintaining physical health through our programs, but we did not have a way to identify issues related to prolonged exposure to traumatic situations in the course of responding to calls within our community.

Nationally within the fire service, we have seen an upswing in suicide, risky behavior, substance abuse, domestic abuse, etc. These are all symptoms of potentially undiagnosed and untreated PTSD.

Our department established a wellness committee several years ago. The committee is comprised of chiefs, staff, and union leadership. The committee has established a good physical wellness program, including annual physicals for all uniformed personnel. However, the one area the committee has struggled with is the behavioral health component.

Critical look
Suicides in many departments across the nation have caused the IAFC and the IAFF to take a very critical look at the behavioral health issues facing the fire service today.

We conducted research, and found a company, Talus 360, in Tacoma, Wash., that had developed a "behavioral health diagnostic tool" that was used by the military to measure the effects of exposure to traumatic events experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It was also used for veterans of other military engagements such as exposure to trauma in Vietnam.

They, too, had seen the need for a diagnostic tool for the first responder community, and modified the military product to fit the fire and law enforcement community. All of the diagnostic elements in this tool have been vetted and certified by the Mental and Behavioral Health Community.

Talus 360 suggested that stigma associated to a firefighter or a law enforcement officer could be overcome if the tool was incorporated in the annual physical and if it became a part of the patient record, it was covered by HIPPA laws and would be kept confidential.

In this way, the primary care physician could review the findings of the diagnostic analysis and refer the firefighter to a specialist for therapy.

Next, we met with the union leadership to get their endorsement. We discussed things like confidentiality, fear of job loss, and stigma in seeking help for a mental or behavioral disorder.

Idea embraced
The union embraced the idea that there is a need for confidential help for their membership. Our local occupational doctor supported the use of the tool as part of the annual physical and we are looking forward to getting confidential appropriate help for those who need it.

We believe this addition is a very necessary one and that it will help address stress-related issues before they get out of hand.

The cost of this program is very reasonable, at $5 per month per firefighter, and is fundable through the AFG program. This year's AFG program established behavioral health as a priority.

The local Metropolitan Medical Response System committee agreed to fund this pilot project.

Ignoring this problem is not an option. Let's help our staff stay healthy, both physically and mentally. Early recognition of behavioral health issues is an answer.

Waiting for a firefighter to get in trouble or doing the unthinkable is not a responsible union or management leadership example. Firefighters are willing to put their life on the line every day. As one retired firefighter stated, "Firefighters go to war every day." We must provide the programs necessary to deal with cumulative stress.

If you have questions, we would be happy to answer them — you can email me at — or refer you to Talus 360 for information.

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