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Tenn. firefighter, professor leads first responder mental health research, advocacy

Putnam County Firefighter Derrick Edwards launched Tennessee Tech’s Responder Health Lab to support first responders and their departments

By Jonathan Frank
Tennessee Tech

COOKEVILLE, Tenn. — Across the country, more than one million career and volunteer firefighters offer themselves in service to their communities.

Now, one of their own is using his faculty role at Tennessee Tech University to rally support for first responders’ mental health needs and raise awareness of the true extent of their sacrifices in the line of duty.

Derrick Edwards, Ph.D., is assistant professor of counseling and psychology at Tech, where he also leads the university’s Responder Health Lab, an on-campus center he launched to support emergency workers through impactful research and hands-on departmental assistance.

For Edwards, a licensed professional counselor and advanced emergency medical technician (AEMT) who first joined the fire service in 2004, the lab offers a way to bring awareness to the unseen emotional wounds of firefighters’ daily work.

“We’re here to serve a population that is often overlooked in the world of research,” explained Edwards. “Historically, emergency responders have been lumped into military research, especially when it comes to the psychological impacts of their jobs. And of course, there are similarities, but there are also some important differences.”

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Derrick Edwards, assistant professor of counseling and psychology at Tennessee Tech.

Photo courtesy of the Putnam County Fire Department.

Edwards notes that firefighters typically live in the communities they serve, meaning that, unlike most military servicemembers, the traumatic situations they may encounter are close to home, in the very places they pass by each day.

He has personally known first responders who have been called to the scene of fatal accidents involving their loved ones. Their emotional scars spurred a deeper passion and urgency in Edwards’ research.

A two-time Tech graduate, Edwards’ master’s thesis examined the physiological response to stress among first responders. Today, the Responder Health Lab addresses everything from cancer rates to cardiac health and suicide prevention. Edwards notes that roughly half of all first responders will contemplate taking their own life, something he calls “a startling find.”

“I leverage my cultural awareness as a firefighter EMT having spent 20 years in the fire service,” Edwards explained. “I speak the language, I know the people and they’re more willing to talk to me about these things.”

Edwards’ support for his fellow firefighters is not just through research. Outside of his work at Tech, he continues to serve as a part-time firefighter AEMT for the Wilson County Emergency Management Agency and volunteer firefighter and chaplain for the Putnam County Fire Department – a rigorous schedule, but one he is resistant to change.

“In a classroom, when you find those students who have a passion, you can tell that they are absolutely going to change the lives of so many people,” he continued. “There’s nothing like that except when you respond to someone on the worst day of their life because they’ve called 911 and you’re the one who can at least be there with them as they go through it. It’s such a similar feeling that I can’t even describe it.”

Edwards says that, as a student, and now as a faculty member, he has felt supported by the Tech community.

“Tech is the type of university where, if I really needed to call President Oldham, I could. I have my dean’s cell phone number. My department chair tells me jokes. That’s the kind of place this is. To feel supported in this way – it’s a no-brainer,” said Edwards.

“I tell families, ‘I know I’m biased, but I don’t think there’s a better choice than Tech,’” he added. “We’re a big enough university that you’re going to get an education that is unmatched across the state, but your professors are also going to know your name.”

On Edwards’ watch, the Responder Health Lab is moving forward with ambitious grant proposals and research projects. One proposal would aim to rewrite the way volunteer firefighters are recruited for research studies, using a more economical model that draws participants from state academies instead of the current, more laborious method of going through individual local departments. Another ongoing study is researching instances of infertility, ovarian cancer and bladder cancer among female firefighters.

Each project the lab takes on is a nod to Edwards’ deeply felt calling to support his brothers and sisters in fire service.

“What I would want people to know about first responders is, it’s not what you see on television,” he said. “It takes a lot, and these are people who, with very few exceptions, are poorly paid, highly educated and highly specialized. So, we appreciate when people say ‘Hey, we see you’ because this is a hard job.”

Video: Hear more from Edwards

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