Roughly 60% of firefighters surveyed by the International Association of Firefighters said they were haunted by memories of traumatic work situations. The report was done last year in partnership with media outlets in California and New York. Of the 7,000 firefighters polled, 19 percent have experienced suicidal thoughts and 27 percent have struggled with substance abuse.
I recently spoke to CalFire’s Mike Mohler about his agency’s efforts to help firefighters cope with the stress of the job and process the trauma of seeing so much destruction and, in some cases, death. Mohler said more than 20 firefighters have also had to deal with fighting a fire while their own families were forced to go to a shelter – some completely losing their homes.
Mohler says CalFire’s new chief, Thom Porter, is dedicated to creating a robust wellness program. With the support of Governor Newsome, Mohler says that Porter has been able to put mental health clinicians at command posts which allows firefighters to get help on scene to cope with trauma in real-time. CalFire has also increased its training to properly educate incoming firefighters about the mental challenges of the job, including the sometimes gruesome and deadly aftermath of fire incidents.
USA Today reported last year that more firefighters and cops died from suicide than in the line of duty. This staggering and sobering fact has officials concerned. That report I mentioned in the beginning showed more than 80 percent of firefighters surveyed said that asking for help would make them seem weak or unfit for duty.
That is a negative stigma Mohler says the agency is working hard to eliminate. Mohler says he is noticing a shift in the type of fire recruit entering the agency. He says today’s younger firefighters are more cognizant of mental health and wellness whereas when Mohler started some 20 years ago a sort of alpha-male, machismo kept firefighters from reaching out for help.
Mohler says new recruits seem more willing to ask for help and employ things like yoga and meditation to relax and cope with stress. He says the generational gap is slowly closing when it comes to accepting the help of mental health professionals.
The new wellness effort also extends to home life. Mohler says a proper coping balance between the stress of work and home is crucial to ensuring a positive mental state for firefighters.
Listen to the final part of my 3-part series about CalFire as heard on Wake-Up Call. It includes a glossary of the most common terms you’re likely to hear during fire coverage on KFI.
Disclaimer: The firefighters in these pictures do not necessarily reflect the subject matter of this story
Pics: LAFD / Tucson Fire Foundation