Okla. FFs: More must be done to support mental health and to reduce 'macho culture' of silence
Some FDs offer peer support, trauma symptom education and encouragement to get help, and leaders and younger firefighters show attitude changes
By Mindy Ragan Wood
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN, Okla. — Norman firefighters say their department struggles with trauma-related mental health crises and hope the department will offer more resources to save lives and stop the department from experiencing early retirements due to post traumatic stress disorder.
The Transcript interviewed more than a dozen firefighters over several months, both those who remain on staff and some who retired early due to the strain of mental health disorders like PTSD.
A "macho culture" of silence and a lack of trust to open up to peers has meant firefighters wait too long to get the help they need, they told the newspaper.
Help for traumatized firefighters varies in departments, from peer support groups that lend an ear and connect a struggling first responder to counseling and chaplains, to education on the signs of trauma and encouragement to seek help.
The Transcript spoke with several fire departments in the Oklahoma City metro area to find out how they address mental health issues among first responders, and obtained records to examine resources.
While the city of Norman released a list of resources offered to firefighters in training and "orally" relayed by administration to fire suppression personnel, the only education material provided to The Transcript as part of an open records request was a mental health policy dated 2007 plus a list of resources.
According to that list and firefighters, the city does not have a staffed or volunteer chaplain. Other resources were not specified as an internal resources or a resource outside the department offered on a referral.
The document noted a peer support team, but according to records obtained by The Transcript, a peer support group was either inactive or had not formed by December 2021. Firefighters who left prior to that date and as early as spring 2022 said there was no peer support team or if there was, they were unaware of one.
The newspaper asked the city to clarify if and when a peer support team was formed in the department.
A statement Friday indicated firefighters would attend a peer support team training in Lawton sometime in April and three had received training with Oklahoma Warrior's Rest Foundation in October 2019, at least two years after some firefighters said they retired.
'PTSD is prevalent'
"PTSD is prevalent in the world of first responders, due to the nature of our roles and responsibilities, city spokesperson Tiffany Vrska told The Transcript. "We encourage our department members and all first responders who may be experiencing difficulties or distress to seek help through the many avenues of help available."
Oklahoma Warrior's Rest Foundation is a non-profit organization offers mental health training and resources to departments. The foundation has a two-year contract with the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse for counseling, the foundation told The Transcript.
Norman police Lt. Teddy Wilson, the department's peer support coordinator, said firefighters sometimes seek counsel with the police peer support team. Several years ago, five firefighters had trained alongside police, but said he never heard anymore about the fire department's peer support group.
"I know one of their assistant chiefs retired and I don't know what happened from there," Wilson said.
The city's emergency assistance hotline, Employee Assistance Program, offers unlimited counseling sessions with a number of clinicians to choose from. Fire professionals in departments around the metro told The Transcript those counselors are not trained in first responder trauma.
Matt Lay, the Tulsa Fire Department's union president, said the hotline isn't the answer.
"In Tulsa, we have surveyed responses, and anecdotal evidence, that suggests EAP is largely ineffective," Lay said.
Another resource listed in the Norman Fire document is critical incident stress debriefing. Following traumatic calls, the debriefing is meant to give firefighters an opportunity to hear coping techniques and discuss the incident, but firefighters said it has been rarely offered and was not enough to address the ongoing trauma they routinely saw.
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Mental health services
While many departments are using trained volunteer peer support groups, others go well beyond it. Lay said his department partners with Oklahoma State University Health Sciences for mental health services via a grant.
Lay said the 2015 suicide death of a firefighter was a wakeup call. Today they can send firefighters to a behavioral health facility via Advanced Recovery Systems.
"They came back singing its praises," Lay said. "They really felt like it made a big impact on their lives and forever impacted the trajectory of their careers and kept them on the job."
The Tulsa department also has a contract with First Responder Support Services, which serves first responder agencies in the north eastern part of Oklahoma, Lay said.
In Yukon, Assistant Chief Kyle Trumbly said a counselor visits each shift twice a year to raise awareness and offer information for behavioral health, in addition to a chaplain, and a trained peer-support team member on each shift.
Edmond Assistant Fire Chief Chris Denton said his department offers peer support, partners with Oklahoma Warrior's Rest and stays in contact with firefighters to look for signs of distress.
Denton told The Transcript he reaches out frequently about mental health, especially during a trauma anniversary like the 2013 Moore tornado. Their department responded to the deaths of seven students at Plaza Towers Elementary School, he said.
Mike Kelley, executive director of the Oklahoma Fire Chiefs Association, is a former Oklahoma City firefighter who said the department also "checks in" with first responders.
"We've probably got 80 trained peer support personnel," he said. "Meaning, we've got someone one every shift and they check in on people. If they hear a traumatic call on the radio, say it's a full pediatric arrest, they're going to call and go, 'hey do you need us to come out?'"
Kelley said because departments are still dealing with a "suck it up buttercup culture," directly reaching out has proved an effective method across the nation.
OKC department has hired mental health staff.
"Their job is to plug our people with vetted counselors that we know have dealt with first responders," Kelly said.
These and other fire chiefs and union officials all told The Transcript, a macho culture that demands silence on mental health issues persists in fire departments, but with leadership and younger firefighters coming on board, it's starting to change.
Denton said younger firefighters were raised differently than their older counterparts who don't talk about trauma.
"The newer generation now are probably a little more open to talking about it because they've been told for a long time it's okay to talk about it, verses older generations who are like, 'oh, don't even say anything about that,'" Denton said.
After a lengthy interview that turned emotional, one firefighter told The Transcript he told his story because, "I just want the department to get better."
Lay said such a change in culture will demand strong leadership.
"I believe that change can happen from the bottom up and from the top down, and I believe, frankly neither is exclusive," Lay said. "It takes people of courage on both sides to identify a problem or an issue and have the courage to take steps to correct that issue."
Special coverage: First Responder Wellness Week is dedicated to providing resources, support and community to help public safety personnel better understand the mental and physical health risks that come with the job.
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