One tough job: Fire agencies battle mental health stigmas

Laney Griffo
Cal Fire crews fight a fire during the 2020 summer season. Provided
Cal Fire

With fire seasons lasting longer and wildland firefighters working more hours, agencies around the basin are working to address mental health concerns among their crews.

Even during a mild fire season, firefighting is a physically and mentally taxing job. Tahoe Douglas Fire Protection District Crews work 16-hour days on 14-day assignments and typically have two days off between each assignment.

“So, in a month, you see basically two days off which is just grinding for the average wildland firefighter, who’s 18 to 25 years old and wants a life other than work,” said Tahoe Douglas Fire Fuels Management Chief Keegan Schafer.

Brian Estes, fire chief for Cal Fire Nevada-Yuba-Placer Unit / Placer County Fire Department, said they are basically now seeing year-round fire seasons, with peak seasons in the summer. He added that they have year-round staff but will increase staffing during the peak seasons.

“It’s not without its challenges,” Estes said. “It’s becoming more and more difficult to find good, qualified people who want to do the job.”

With the higher demand, fire agencies are having a harder time finding and retaining firefighters.

Schafer runs a crew of 40 people and he said he’s seeing a retention rate of about 50%.

Kacey KC, who leads the Nevada Division of Forestry, said they’ve also seen a lot of turnover. She said in the past, it was fairly common for firefighters to move agencies.

“Now, we’re seeing a lot of firefighters who have gone into other fields which used to be a lot less common,” KC said.

A lot of this turnover can be attributed to the high demands of this job.

“The seasons are getting longer, the seasons are getting hotter, the guys don’t have much of a break during those summer months to really regain some of that mental health,” Schafer said.

A 2018 report from Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration showed elevated levels of stress, post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse among volunteer and career firefighters. The study showed 16.85% of volunteer firefighters and 13.6% of career firefighters experienced elevated levels of depression.

The SAMHSA report quoted a study by Dowdall-Thomae, Gilkey, Larson, and Arend-Hicks which stated, “over 50% of firefighter deaths are due to stress and exhaustion.” said in a study of alcohol use/abuse among firefighters, 85% of career firefighters reported drinking in the past month, with 56% reporting binge-drinking.

“On average, career firefighters reported drinking 10 days per month, or about half of their off-duty days,” the study said.

A 2015 report from the Center for Disease Control showed people in the protective services occupation field had the sixth highest percentage (24.2% per 100,000 people surveyed) of suicides.

The SAMHSA report also touched on suicide rates, “in 1,027 current and retired U.S. firefighters, the prevalence estimates of suicidal ideation, plans, and attempts were 46.8%, 19.2%, and 15.5%, respectively, as compared to lifetime rates of ideations, plans, and attempts of 13.5%, 3.9%, and 4.6% among the general U.S. population.”

Estes, KC and Schafer all said part of the difficulty of addressing mental health problems is that they are running up against years of a culture that prevents first responders from talking about their feelings.

“So, it’s becoming part of our culture. I will tell you 20 years ago, it was not,” Schafer said about addressing mental health. “You were expected to be a young, strong, hard, 20-year-old and you didn’t talk about how you were feeling too much. In fact, it was looked down upon, right? You wanted to be the tough guy, but our culture is changing.”

“Especially I would say specifically in the field of law enforcement, in the fire service there’s been an innate kind of apprehension to talking about the mental effects from fatigue, or PTSD or whatever it may be,” Estes said.

In recent years, agencies have worked to combat these problems.

“We’ve known for quite some time that first responders encounter things that aren’t natural for people to see,” KC said. “The first hurdle was to overcome the stigma of talking about it.”

NDF started the Critical Incident Stress Management Group to help address mental health challenges.

KC said in the past, if a crew was out on a call and saw a particularly intense incident, such a crew member dying, it was common to just continue working and deal with it later.

Now, NDF will pull all members who may have experienced the incident, even operators who took the call or crew that heard about the incident over their radios, and enroll them in a peer support network. That allows firefighters to be able to talk about the stressors of the job with others who have the same experience.

In recent years, KC said they’ve worked to expand benefits offered by the state. The state has always provided mental health benefits but it applied to general mental health providers and not specialized providers, such as professionals that specialize in PTSD.

So, NDF is working to get those providers included in the state insurance or connecting firefighters to foundations that can help cover the cost of care not provided by the state.

Estes said Cal Fire has worked to train captains to look for signs of stress and mental health problems.

“I would say we just do a better job of just being open and communicating that stuff, there’s not a stigma if you admit that you’re bothered by something or you’re just tired, worn-out you’re not admitting that you’re a failure,” Estes said.

In addition to training, Cal Fire also implemented an employee support group.

“We established a really proactive employee Support Services Program and an employee assistance program,” Estes said. “They are multi-faceted, and they’re designed to deal with the impacts of professional firefighters in our agency that are suffering from PTSD, or [post traumatic stress injury], issues at home, fatigued, just all the things that come from the demands of working in emergency services.”

One way for people to help is to destigmatize talking about mental health.

“People need to realize that [firefighters] are strong but they’re not robots,” KC said.

Mike Osborn, public information officer for the Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources which oversees NDF, said people need to remember that firefighters are members of the community so one way to protect them is to help prevent wildfires.

KC added that if there is a fire, be prepared and get out early because some of the really stressful incidents happen when people wait until the last minute to evacuate.

All three agencies are gearing up for another intense fire season and all three agencies are fully staffed and ready to go.

“We are definitely lining up for an early and very busy fire season, but you know Cal Fire is ready,” Estes said. “We’re trained, well prepared and our people are ready to do the job.”

Correction: This article was updated to show the correct percentage of firefighters who reported binge drinking in the past month.

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