5 Steps Fire Departments Can Take to Improve Firefighter Mental Health

Providing mental health support for the people that firefighters save is crucial, but what about the firefighters themselves? A 2017 study titled Mental Disorder Symptoms Among Public Safety Personnel in Canada stated that firefighters tested positive for symptoms at a rate of 34%, which is three times the rate for the general public. In fact, mental health disorders are classified as an operational stress injury (OSI), as it is such a prevalent consequence of the job. To help alleviate the OSI placed on firefighters, fire departments all over the country are revisiting the need for mandatory debriefing and peer support programs. But what else can fire departments do to improve firefighter mental health? 

Below are five additional ways fire departments can improve firefighter mental health. These recommendations are from B.C. researcher and clinical counselor, Gemma Isaac, who presented her suggestions for fire departments to better help firefighters with their mental health.

Mental health professional directory 

It’s easier to get help if you know where to go. Creating a list of mental health professionals would simplify the search for finding a suitable professional. The professionals included on the list should be occupationally trained, meaning they should be familiar with the challenges that firefighters go through on a daily basis. To make it even more convenient, this list should be widely accessible in the firehouse and updated regularly to reflect firefighter feedback. Isaac stated that her hope is that it would be placed in every washroom.

Mandatory counseling

Isaac suggests fire departments implement mandatory counseling sessions every one or two years for active firefighters. The goal is to reduce the stigma associated with seeking help and to make it more accessible for firefighters. An alternative suggestion (as there may be resistance), is to have a counselor available and encourage firefighters to go in for a session.

Mental health training

Mental health training is crucial for firefighters as a way to prevent OSIs like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The purpose of the training is to educate firefighters about common health symptoms, as well as how to spot warning signs for complex mental health issues. It should also teach firefighters exercises on how to strengthen your mental health and how to cope with certain stressful and traumatic situations.

Fire departments should also consider implementing a formal training program for retired firefighters as their cumulative traumatic experiences span upwards of 30 years. In fact, firefighters with 20 or more years of service report the second-highest stress levels of any group.

Support for families 

Marriage can be hard for anyone dealing with stress on-the-job, and firefighters are definitely no exception. In fact, a survey done in Canada found 50% of firefighters felt that “maintaining a relationship with one’s romantic partner” was made more difficult due to the stress of the job. This is why it’s crucial for fire departments to provide support for the families of firefighters. The goal is to provide resources for families to deal with job-related pressure and make them aware of the signs and symptoms that a loved one is suffering.

Mental health built into the workday 

Not everyone may have the time to seek a counselor outside of the work-day, which is why incorporating sessions in the workday may be beneficial. These sessions are essentially debriefs after stressful calls with trained peer leaders. It’s also important to have another confidential option for firefighters to indicate whether they need further support as they might not want to publicly vocalize their need for help.

Some fire departments, such as the Richmond Fire-Rescue, have actually started implementing these suggestions. It’s essential to incorporate more accessible resources for firefighters to reduce the stigma associated with firefighters seeking help. In turn, firefighters can get the support they need to be happier and healthier on-the-job.

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