As a firefighter and first responder, grit and determination define many aspects of your job. While physical preparation is oftentimes a top priority for individuals in this profession, the importance of becoming mentally prepared to handle the fiercest conditions a firefighter faces is oftentimes overlooked.
I talked with firefighter behavioral health expert and founder of the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance, Jeff Dill, about the challenges experienced within this demanding profession in regard to mental health and stress. In the Q&A below, Jeff will touch on how to manage some of the profession’s top stressors and the resources available for fire and EMS leadership teams.
1. As a retired fire captain, what motivated you to establish FBHA?
My motivation began in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina. Firefighters from my district were dispatched to New Orleans and experienced horrific destruction and devastation. These men and women went to their counselors after their experience, and the trained behavioral health professionals couldn’t comprehend, relate to or understand what these first responders were talking about. In 2009, I became a licensed counselor and began training other counselors and chaplains. Following my training, I began receiving so many questions about what I, along with my network, do for firefighters and first responders.
In 2011, the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance was established to directly educate firefighters/ Emergency Medical Services (EMS) personnel and their families about behavioral health issues such as depression, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety and addictions, as well as firefighter suicides.
2. What are some of the major causes of stress firefighters face in their profession today?
Some of the major causes for stress include calls and management issues. But the top stressors reported to us are marital and family relationships, medical issues, PTSD – they are all wrapped up together. There is a lot of cultural brainwashing in our society – where we are trained to be the best we can, however, we’re not prepared for some of the images we’ll carry for the rest of our life.
Brainwashing refers to the pressure to always act strong and handle issues on your own. Without an outlet to positively communicate about or re-direct these stressors, a build up takes place and at times, individuals will turn to addictions.
3. Are fire departments required to provide training and workshops to help their employees manage the stressors of their profession?
Chiefs are encouraged to go out into the community to look for Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) that offer mental health resources and have a connection with the firefighter community.
Many districts have a board of trustees and one of their responsibilities is to try to establish a relationship with an EAP. In bigger communities and cities, this is a role for human resources with the fire chief’s continued involvement. In all communities, chaplain and peer support is encouraged as well.
In my opinion, many counselors are good people but may not be trained to work with fire and EMS. This profession is very different from others. Unfortunately, there are not enough qualified counselors to work across this sector. The shortage of resources and the inability to connect leave firefighters lacking the help that they need.
My organization, FBHA, now offers 7 different mental and behavioral health workshops. Our most popular focuses on how to create a successful behavioral health program for your team.
4. What are some of the warning signs that a first responder may be having a difficult time dealing with job-related stress?
I’ve interviewed over 800 firefighters and EMTs and the biggest warning signs are:
- Lost of confidence and skills
- Sleep depravation
It’s important to recognize warning signs with a colleague and understand that it’s not infringing on their privacy or intruding to offer help.
Lack of sleep can be another risk factor for behavioral health issues with firefighters and EMTs. There is not much getting around having to run calls at night, but getting naps in during the day can have a tremendously positive impact on your body and stress level.
5. Do you feel like physical activity and good nutrition play a critical role in the mental health of first responders and firefighters?
Fueling your body with nutritious food and fluids has taken on a major role in the overall health of firefighters. When I started 22 years ago – we all pitched in on the cooking duties and we ate (what we thought) was very well. As the years passed, we saw a bigger push towards a focus on overall nutrition and physical fitness to support our bodies need to handle a high level of physical and mental demands. I would like to see the focus on behavioral health in our profession grow as fast as nutrition and physical fitness have done so over the years.
When I did my first presentation in 2011, you would think I had horns growing out of my ears based on the reactions I received. Now, the growth of this important topic is substantial and we are seeing many firefighter communities coming up with awareness programs. But what price have we paid in the meantime? It is so important that the programs being implemented are effective.
6. What role does a firefighter’s gear play in both physical and mental preparedness?
Many concerns and stressors related to gear is due to aging equipment. Some small to middle sized fire departments and volunteer departments are using turnout gear that is 15 years old. They may be only running 300 calls a year, but they are still running calls. It can be difficult to get funding for new gear, but it is important that these men and women have the appropriate protection when putting their lives at risk to protect their community.
7. What resources can you recommend for firefighters, EMS and other first responders looking for more information about maintaining optimal mental health?
Below are some fantastic resources for firefighters, EMS and first responders to get the critical information needed to maintain optimal physical and mental health. Additionally, the organizations referenced provide downloadable tools, workshops and seminars that can provide further assistance.
About Jeff Dill:
In 2011, Jeff Dill founded the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance to directly educate firefighters/ Emergency Medical Services (EMS) personnel and their families about behavioral health issues such as depression, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), anxiety and addictions, as well as firefighter suicides. Through businesses, community support and sponsorships, it is the organization’s hope that the workshops and services will be offered at no charge to those in need.
Jeff holds a Master’s degree and is a Licensed Counselor. He is a retired Captain from Palatine Rural Fire Protection District in Inverness, Illinois and is a member of the American Counseling Association, National Board of Certified Counselors, International Associations of Fire Chiefs, and is an alumni member of the International Association of Fire Fighters.
Jeff Dill, and those working with FBHA are dedicated to educating firefighters and emergency service personnel on the importance of behavioral health.
For more information about FBHA and upcoming workshops, contact Jeff here.