September marks National Suicide Prevention Month in the U.S., which is a pertinent time for emergency responders like Burbank Fire Department firefighters to address any mental health traumas they may be facing.
On a regular basis, firefighters suppress dangerous fires and provide life-saving services during extreme emergency situations. As the California Fire Service Task Force on Behavioral Health website states, this can create a great amount of mental and emotional stress. The site notes that the only position with greater stress levels is a combat soldier, and one in five firefighters in the U.S. or Canada will at some point experience a treatable post-traumatic stress injury due to their work conditions. They report that a tally revealed 99 firefighters tragically took their own lives in 2016. Surveys on suicidal thoughts have varied, with some concluding that one in six firefighters have contemplated suicide, and others finding that this number is as high as one in three firefighters.
While members of the BFD take great pride in their professional roles and contributions, the department also advocates normalizing “talking about the emotional impact, the effects of the job, and the cumulative toll it can take,” as Burbank Fire Department Battalion Chief Mark Hatch explains.
“We are all extremely proud to have the distinct honor and privilege of being called a “firefighter”. This profession is extremely rewarding, dynamic, and challenging,” Hatch said. “However, this job can be extremely stressful and emotionally taxing in the long run. We see and have to handle the worst of the worst scenarios throughout our careers. These experiences tend to build up for many and can have detrimental effects on our personal life and family.”
Providing necessary emergency services during the pandemic has introduced a new level of mental anxiety for BFD firefighters. For the entirety of COVID-19, they have continuously taken excessive precautions to ensure public health is prioritized while working overtime to keep the Burbank community safe.
“COVID-19 has created another layer of stress for our personnel worrying about what they are exposed to and what they are potentially bringing home to their families,” Hatch said. “This situation has been an extremely stressful balance at work and home for our members. We should all be extremely grateful and proud of our personnel in how they have endured the pandemic and tried to maintain a balance with the stresses at work and families at home.”
Addressing mental health needs and suicide prevention has become a mission for BFD members as a result of the personal ways the department has been affected by emotional trauma. A handful of BFD employees have lost their lives to suicide emerging from mental health issues, including a member who took his own life in 2017. Burbank Firefighters Local 778 President Eric Rowley worked with this firefighter for over a decade and shared how the department has healed from this tragedy.
“It was a shame,” Rowley said of the BFD firefighter’s passing. “[We saw him as] the face of…the fire department, and then…hearing his wife’s testimony to what [he] had been going through all these years was pretty substantial, and for me very hard to hear because I feel like we missed [signs], but of course, hindsight is always 20/20….Looking back, there were things that I wish we could have done differently, but we can’t live in the past. So that’s why we’re trying to make things better for the future.”
The department has subsequently made progressive changes towards addressing the mental health of employees in recent years. This includes partnerships with the Burbank Firefighters Local 778, Management Services, and the City of Burbank. The City provides an Employee Assistance Program that sheds light on the comprehensive mental health effects of firefighting and specific situations that may exacerbate this problem. In addition, a peer team has been formed amongst department members who want to discuss their experiences and how their lives are impacted by traumatic work scenarios.
“Like many fire departments nationally, the BFD has recognized the issues and been proactive in the last five years in an attempt to change the norm and culture of our department,” Hatch said. “While this is a process, we have made strides to normalize the recognition of the need to talk about the effects of the job either with your crew or a clinician as needed.”
This dedicated approach to mental health intervention is a strong turnaround from the historically common outlook of fire department employees. Rowley’s early days as a firefighter showed much less thoughtful guidance from department leadership, with little to no focus on the emotional impact of the job.
“When I came on a job 15 years ago,…we would go on pretty dramatic incidents, and it was always kind of the phrase that we call…‘Suck up kid, ‘ and ‘It’s part of the job,’” Rowley said. “But those things would haunt you.”
Post-traumatic stress from dramatic episodes can manifest through numerous potential symptoms, including substance abuse, anger, depression as well as thoughts of suicide. Rowley says that the City has done “exceptionally well” at handling these cases and offering mental health assistance within the past several years.
Rather than ignoring the signs of emotional trauma and trying to fight through these feelings, BFD leadership recommends facing the problem head-on in order to work through it in a healthy and productive manner.
“Being an emergency responder is extremely unique,” Hatch said. “Addressing the mental health aspect of the profession has become imperative in maintaining a healthy balance between work and home. The number one goal is to have a productive, fulfilling, and challenging career but end it with a healthy mind and intact family.”
The BFD maintains a strong relationship with a physical therapist of Santa Ana College in order to also keep firefighters physically healthy. Rowley notes that emotional and physical elements go hand-in-hand in ensuring the comprehensive well-being of department members.
“We’re trying to utilize [physical therapy] to help [keep] us…in a good mental place because that balance for us [of] the physical and mental sides is so important,” Rowley said.
Some organizations that address the mental health struggles of firefighters include the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance and the International Association of Firefighters. FBHA provides self-assessments on their website so that firefighters can determine if they have suicidal ideations, and has a directory of behavioral health professionals for those in need of assistance for their emotional problems. The IAFF includes a behavioral health program that has a treatment facility offered to firefighters, dispatchers, and paramedics dealing with mental issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder. This organization has also taken notice of Burbank’s mental health services for emergency responders, as Rowley has been placed on the IAFF health and safety committee which provides health guidance for firefighters across the United States and Canada.
Resources from national groups and local BFD programs signify the increasing awareness of mental health struggles that are too often ignored in the emergency responder community. Hatch says that the progressiveness of the department, along with backing from the City of Burbank, points towards a bright future for the mental wellness of BFD staff members.
“We are so fortunate to work in a community like Burbank,” Hatch said. “We are shown great appreciation often by the public we have the privilege to serve. The support we receive is invaluable in sustaining our drive to provide top notch service and always maintain our operational readiness. This is the best job in the world. With our community support we will continue to strive to provide the resources needed to have a healthy career.”