When a 9-1-1 call is placed and a fire department responds to an incident, the number one priority is the safety of those at the scene, civilians and first responders alike. Once the situation is resolved and the immediate crisis averted, what’s the next step in ensuring the safety and well-being of those involved?
While it was once a taboo subject, conversations about mental health and methods of supporting the mental wellness of those in the fire service, especially after a critical incident, have been gaining traction in recent years. Similarly, programs specifically targeting mental health and preventing adverse events have become more common as well. However, the sensitivity of mental health issues and concerns regarding the best way to handle them when they arise is a major roadblock for many fire departments.
In a recent webinar presented by Vector Solutions, Jeff Dill, Founder of Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance (FBHA) and Las Vegas Fire & Rescue Behavioral Health Administrator, shared steps for implementing a successful behavioral health program and how the FBHA can help fire departments along this journey.
During the presentation, Jeff shared the origins of the FBHA and how his own awareness of the toll firefighting puts on the men and women of the fire service grew.
In 2005, Jeff was a Battalion Chief at a fire department in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, the Chicagoland area sent down numerous firefighters to assist with the devastation. When they came back, they struggled with what they had seen and experienced, Jeff said.
“They went to their employee assistance program counselors. [The counselors] were good people, but they really don’t have any idea what our world is all about. I decided to help out by going back and getting my master’s degree and I became a licensed counselor,” Jeff said.
In 2009, Jeff founded Counseling Services for Fire Fighters (CSFF) with the mission of offering behavioral health workshops to support firefighters, train officers, and educate clinicians regarding the fire service. During that time, Jeff started receiving calls and emails from all around the world. Those calls and emails all focused on the same problem: firefighter suicides.
“I didn’t know we had a problem,” Jeff said. “I contacted organizations like the United States Fire Administration, National Fire Academy, and the National Fire Protection Agency…and no one kept any records or data on our lost brothers and sisters who died by suicide.”
As a result, Jeff founded the FBHA in 2010 to track and validate firefighter and EMS suicides. Several years later, they also began tracking dispatcher suicides.
Beyond collecting data, FBHA’s goals include offering educational workshops regarding behavioral health, offering scholarship funds for children and families, as well as providing other assistance to families impacted by fire service suicides.
As of Feb. 3, 2022, the FBHA has validated 1,712 suicides. However, Jeff estimates that only 65% of suicides are reported and as such, many go unaccounted.
“To date, I have personally spoken to about 1,660 fire chiefs and chief officers to better understand why we’re taking our lives and to also remember our brothers and sisters,” he said.
During the presentation, Jeff shared statistics regarding fire service suicides. These numbers, while upsetting, are important to truly understand the reality of the situation, Jeff said.
“People always ask me, ‘why do you show the data?’ And I tell them because it’s reality. It’s what’s happening out here to our brothers and sisters and we need to know,” he said. “We’re trying to understand these things to make it easier for [firefighters] to find resources.”
In their research, the FBHA has found that firearms are the most frequently utilized method of suicide. They also found that for the seven years prior to 2020, there were more suicides in the fire service than line of duty deaths.
Additionally, the FBHA discovered that firefighters in the weeks and months following retirement were particularly vulnerable to suicide. Of the 1,712 suicides validated at the time of the presentation, 296 of those were retired firefighters.
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To help fire departments get started on their behavioral health journey, Jeff shared 12 steps that agencies can follow to ensure the success of their program.
“It took me a while to design [the 12 steps] because I felt a true behavioral health program is more than just having an employee assistance program or a peer support team,” Jeff said.
While every organization faces their own challenges, the 12 steps have been designed to be applicable, at least to some degree, to every agency.
The 12 steps, as detailed by Jeff, are:
1: Educating those at the agency (from new recruits all the way up to the Fire Chief), and their families, regarding issues like anxiety, depression, addiction, suicidal ideations, etc.
2: Creating a peer support team (PST), which is a vital piece of a behavioral health program.
3: Developing a working relationship with department/employee assistance programs. While these counselors aren’t always trained in the fire service, they can learn. “Teach them what this world is all about,” Jeff said.
4: Develop standard operating guidelines/policies, that are shared with employees, that outline steps when handling behavioral health issues. Transparency around these steps, and the resources that members can request, can save lives.
5: In collaboration with officers in charge of training, the PST and/or the health & safety officer will develop classes on behavioral health. This training should be required on a yearly basis and be included in academies. This is also beneficial for PST members, who often experience additional stress as part of their duties in the PST.
6: Develop local community counselor resources to offer assistance to members who are uncomfortable working with fire department counselors. Culturally-competent counselors, especially those that aren’t connected to the fire department, are hugely important for behavioral health programs.
7: Develop and sustain relationships with local religious leaders for those members who take comfort in their faith.
8: Create programs and classes for family members. The number one known reason for suicides within the fire service is difficulties with marital or family relationships, Jeff said. Promoting healthy and happy familial relationships for those in the fire service is incredibly important.
9: Fire department leaders should create an atmosphere that promotes learning and openness around mental health issues. Any initiative starts from the top and getting buy-in from members of the fire department is a major priority when starting a behavioral health program.
10: Create a policy that allows PST members to respond to fire/EMS/police calls when needed. In doing so, they are available specifically to support their colleagues and observe behaviors that result from the incident.
11: Develop relationships with PST or similar groups at other local agencies, including fire departments, police departments, or other organizations, to promote working relationships throughout the community.
12. Create a program offering support to retirees (or any employee leaves the agency). Through this program, offer support for issues such as a lack of purpose, a loss of identity, a loss of belonging, and other challenges come as a result leaving the agency that can also raise the risk of suicide.
By acknowledging and offering support for those dealing with mental health issues, fire departments can take the first step to preventing loss of life due to suicides.
“All organizations need some form of behavioral health program,” Jeff said. “We look at those 12 points and you might not have the ability to hit every one of them in great detail, but they should all be met in some measure.”
For organizations looking to implement a program at their own agency, Vector Solutions offers a full suite of workforce management, training, and early intervention solutions.
To help your agency get your behavioral health program off the ground, we offer Guardian Tracking, an early intervention system that increases transparency and equips fire departments with a process for identifying those in need of help before an adverse event occurs.
Vector LMS, formerly known as TargetSolutions, offers a simple way to manage and administer behavioral health training, and Vector Scheduling, an easy-to-use workforce management solution, streamlines complex scheduling tasks, like ensuring PTS members are on every shift.
Regardless of your specific need, Vector Solutions can help your agency implement and manage a successful behavioral health program.