Conn. fire dept. works to better address traumatic events
The Fairfield County Trauma Recovery Network was formed after trauma clinicians worked with firefighters who had responded to a particularly difficult call
By Kat Russell
The Stamford Advocate
STAMFORD, Conn. — Fire Chief Trevor Roach can still recall the mother's shrieks to rescue her family at the 2011 Shippan blaze that killed three little girls and their grandparents on Christmas morning.
"The call came in at about 4 a.m., and when I got there, the mother was out in the front yard screaming to save her little girls," Roach said.
He can still see the looks of frustration and defeat on the faces of some 70 firefighters who responded that day, having made valiant attempts to enter the engulfed house to no avail.
"My people are trained not to fail, and the feeling coming out of that fire was that we didn't succeed," he said. "It was a difficult event for everyone to cope with."
For firefighters, these are the types of calls that stay with them for the rest of their lives. In his 31 years as a firefighter, Roach has a long list of calls that haunt him.
"It's a difficult job," he said. "When there's sadness and sorrow, our people are there and it's our job to absorb some of that sadness. What we see on a day-to-day basis is not normal. What we experience is not normal. And we try our best to deal with it and not take it home with us, but of course, we do take it home."
According to a 2016 study published by the National Emergency Training Center, repeated exposure to traumatic events can lead to increased mental health struggles for firefighters, who may suffer from irritability and flashbacks and become desensitized cynics.
As a result, "Firefighters are 25 percent more likely to commit suicide than the general population," said Dr. Michael Crouch, a clinician with the Fairfield County Trauma Recovery Network who works closely with first responders. "Their life expectancy is shorter due to the stress they carry. Firefighters have a higher rate of heart disease, diabetes and some types of cancer, and higher incidence of domestic violence and divorce."
"We all like to think of ourselves as superheroes, but we're not," Stamford Fire Lt. Ted Stanek said. "We are human beings and we are subject to the same feelings and emotions and vulnerabilities that all people are."
For Stanek, the Shippan fire marked a shift in the conversation around mental health and first responders.
"(It) made us look at how we deal with stresses on our job and ask how can we make things different, so we are better prepared to provide the appropriate resources," he said.
After the Shippan fire, Stanek said it was clear the department lacked the resources to handle a call of that magnitude. Through the wife of one of the department's members, trained trauma clinicians were brought in to work with the firefighters who responded that day. They talked to the department about trauma, mental health and the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Out of that interaction, the Fairfield County Trauma Recovery Network (FCTRN) was born.
The volunteer network is comprised of clinicians who specialize in the way trauma affects the brain and body. Dr. Karen Alter-Reid, a co-coordinator of the FCTRN, said the group's staffers understand the culture of first responders, who live every day with stressful schedules and pressure to "suck it up" under emotionally trying circumstances.
"I was greatly affected by the Shippan fire, and for three and a half years, I didn't even know it," Stanek said. "I exhibited behaviors that I explained away, that I rationalized, and those reasons seemed to make a lot of sense. When the Fairfield County Trauma Network came in and worked with some of us guys who were affected by that fire ... that was when I realized that I needed help dealing with this."
The Stamford Fire Department has also formed a peer support team, comprised of 18 city firefighters who received training to provide emotional help to their fellows. If a firefighter needs help that goes beyond peer support, Stanek said the team can refer that person to an FCTRN clinician.
Stanek, who is the director of the peer support team, said he can't change the outcomes of the calls that have upset him, but treatment has helped how he copes with tough situations.
"I had a call last New Year's morning (2017)," he said. "It was a car accident that involved a young kid, and something about the accident, the way it presented, I realized it could jam me up and I was in front of a therapist within three days so that I could talk about it."
One of the biggest obstacles to getting first responders help is not a lack of resources, it's the culture embedded within these organizations.
"The culture of first responders is different than that of civilians," said Dr. Crouch, who also serves as a member of the FCTRN. "By definition, first responders are expected to be 'tough,' they're supposed to have 'thick skin.' And because of that, they don't want others to see that they're struggling—they feel like there's something wrong with them."
"We have a very difficult culture to crack," Stanek said. "To a large extent, as a para-military organization, it came from those vets who had seen far worse in World War II, in Vietnam or in Korea. It was easy for them to say 'don't worry about it kid, you'll get over it, do your job.' So, there wasn't a culture where people felt comfortable or even safe to be vulnerable."
That culture, Stanek said, is something the fire department is trying to change. The process he said is gradual and still in its infancy.
"Mental health is something that no one wants to talk about," he said. "It can be a very unconformable topic for people. But these programs, these conversations, are long overdue."
Stanek said he can't force his fellow firefighters to get help when they're struggling, but he can let them know they're not alone.
"Sometimes a conversation over a cup of coffee around a kitchen table can be all that's needed," he said. "The power of a conversation is immense—just being able to talk about it, and let them know they're not alone and that what they're feeling is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation, can make a huge difference."
Roach said the department has made steady progress in addressing the needs of its firefighters, but many obstacles still remain.
"Firemen are very good at helping others, but the one thing we're not very good at is helping ourselves or asking for help," Roach said. "Most of us see that as a shameful thing, asking for help, and that's what we want to change."
Copyright 2018 The Stamford Advocate