Friday, August 26, 2016

Can We Talk?

(Photo credit: Thinkstock/
[This article is a joint effort between Firehouse magazine and the Wildland Fire Leadership Development Program to promote firefighter health and wellness. We hope all firefighters, regardless of volunteer, structure or wildland, will glean something valuable. Although from May, this information applies year round.]

How do you deal with emotional problems? The range of options is as varied as the problems and personalities involved.

When something has you bogged down, do you find a good friend and talk it through or do you keep to yourself? Everyone has their own way of dealing with life’s bigger issues. Some find relief through exercise or other physical activities. Others need someone to talk to, while others—me included—will take pen to paper and write out their thoughts and feelings.

On the opposite end of the scale, are those that keep their problems to themselves. Maybe it’s not their nature to talk about what’s bothering them or maybe they are fear the reaction or the repercussions.

Unlike Taylor Swift’s popular song, sometimes you just can’t “shake, shake, shake it off” when you are really down in the dumps. When your attitude or mood affects your job or life, it might be time to find a trained professional to help sort out what’s going on.

I’m not a firefighter, but based on the stories I heard from my dad, my brothers and other firefighters, some of the calls and scenes were quite disturbing. Years of responding to tragic incidents must take an emotional toll.

May is National Mental Health month and I’d like to recognize the efforts of some of the fire organizations working to support the mental well-being of firefighters and first responders:
  • In 2004, the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation’s 16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives were created to change and infuse a culture of safety in the fire service. Life Safety Initiative 13 states “Firefighters and their families must have access to counseling and psychological support.” NFFF’s “Everyone Goes Home” Program, does exactly that and includes new protocol for firefighter exposure to traumatic incidents.
  • The National Volunteer Fire Council has the “Share the Load” Program for Fire and EMS. Among the resources the Share the Load offers is a Fire and EMS Helpline—1-888-731-FIRE (3473), [] staffed by trained fire service members. The website also includes a video on five warning signs for firefighters and EMTs.
  • The International Association of Fire Fighters has an IAFF Online Behavioral Wellness manual for download. In its introduction, the IAFF does a good job of describing how physical balance is critical to the job of a firefighter. At the same time, balance is also critical for behavioral health and states “When behaviors, moods, thoughts and emotions are not in balance, a high-risk situation for the firefighter and his or her job can occur. Unhealthy or aggressive behaviors, negative moods, thoughts and emotions can disrupt the balance of effective functioning both in life and on the job.”

While doing research on an article on firefighters and behavioral health for the May 2014 issue of the NFPA Journal, I learned there are discussions to include behavioral health as part of annual physicals in one of the NFPA Standards, NFPA 1582: Standard on Comphrensive Occupational Medical Program for Fire Departments. I think it makes common sense to do a total well-being check for first responders at least annually.

According to the Center for Disease Control website, it is estimated that by the year 2020, depression will be the second leading cause of disability throughout the world, trailing only ischemic heart disease.

If not for you or a co-worker, it’s a good idea to learn more about behavioral health for your family and friends, not just in May, but all year long.

Janet Wilmoth

Janet Wilmoth grew up in a family of firefighters in a suburb of Chicago. Wilmoth, owner of Wilmoth Associates, worked with Fire Chief magazine for 27 years until it closed in 2013. She is currently a Project Director for Firehouse/Cygnus. Wilmoth currently serves on the Board of Directors for the Fire Emergency Manufacturers & Services Association and lives in Lisle, IL

We appreciate Firehouse and Editor-in-Chief Tim Sendelbach's permission to let us repost Can We Talk?,  May 27, 2015.

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