( By Chief Patrick J. Kenny, Director of Fire and EMS, Village of Western Springs, Illinois )
When we talk about firefighter wellness, there always seems to be the debate as to what constitutes health? I sometimes struggle with Safety and Health Week, as I do with Fire Prevention Week, as to how we become more sensitive to the issue by proclaiming a week in its honor when we are actually dealing with a 365-day challenge to define and address our firefighters’ health.
I would like to speak to the 13th Life Safety Initiative of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation’s 16 initiatives, which states “Firefighters and their families must have access to counseling and psychological support.”
Before I climb on my soapbox, let me provide an example that I use consistently when I speak on this topic and see if you can relate. In any firehouse in these great United States or around the world, for that matter: If a firefighter complained of chest pains for a second time, whether that be their next duty day or their next drill night, they would be challenged to seek medical attention immediately or their spouse would be called. The true care for a fellow firefighter is evident.
Now let’s use the same scenario, but let’s change it to a firefighter who is normally very outgoing and engaged. This firefighter now becomes withdrawn, agitated, disheveled in appearance or apathetic. The behavior continues for an extended period. Do you think that firefighter will have anyone go up to him or her and ask them if they need any help? I am here to tell you that the answer to that is most often no.
Mental health challenges are just as much of a threat to firefighter health and safety as building construction, reduced staffing, response times and physical health. Yet, for some reason, our approach to this issue goes silent.
In February of 2009, I had an article published in Fire Chief Magazine entitled “A Father’s Grief.” It was probably the most difficult thing I have ever written in my life.
The article briefly outlined my struggles as a fire chief in dealing with the loss of my 20-year-old son Sean, who took his life after 15 years of dealing with deep depression. Since that article was published and with the encouragement of many wonderful people in the fire service, I have gone out to give talks on how poorly I handled the entire situation.
I had an opportunity to show all in my department that mental illness is no different than a back injury. Both are things no one would choose to be afflicted by and can cause day-to-day hardships over the most simplest of things. Yet how they are viewed in today’s society is in direct contradiction. One is very acceptable, while the other can cause shame.
I thought if my department knew of Sean’s condition, how could they possibly understand the whole mental illness concept and its ramifications when my wife and I were living in that environment every day and we felt lost? I knew my fellow chiefs had their own crosses to bear, so why add to their plate?
That decision, in hindsight, was a huge mistake. The toll it took on me to try and keep up this “super” façade and the pressure it put on my few confidants, no matter how well intentioned, was a huge error in judgment.
The unsolicited feedback I have received from my talks is very clear. Sean’s situation is not unique. The mental health challenge may impact a family member in your department, a firefighter or you! Many in the fire service struggle with the contradiction of needing to be superhuman one moment during a crisis situation and then in the next moment, return to your “Clark Kent” persona as a husband, father, spouse, etc.
You need to be aware that the challenges related to mental health are increasing. With the downswing in the economy, the loss of jobs and the stress of paying bills, all of our people are affected. What I am asking you to do during International Fire/EMS Safety and Health Week and then for the rest of the year is to examine in your department what education you can provide on this subject and what support is out there for not only department members, but for their families too.
Do you have access to counselors who are familiar with the fire service culture? If you are fortunate enough to have an employee assistance program, do you know who they are and what exact services they provide? Do you communicate the fact that if someone must face mental health challenges personally or in their family that your organization will be there to help?
Many I have spoken to do not have the answers to these basic questions. The health and safety threat is just as real as standing underneath that wall that is about to collapse on your crews and you. The only difference is you can’t see this wall. So do something about it now! Sean and I both appreciate the effort.
Patrick J. Kenny, a 30-year veteran of the fire service in Illinois, will present “Mayday for Mental Health” at the FASNY Convention’s Sixth Annual Training Day August 21. Learn more or register at www.fasny.com