Improving the Health & Safety of all Emergency Responders

“I Serve To Save But Who Is Supposed To Save Me?”

Today, more firefighters die from suicide than in the line of duty.  The question of how did we get to this point isn’t as important as how do we reverse our current trajectory?  Firefighters for decades have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) but until the last decade, firefighters were misdiagnosed or not diagnosed at all which acerbated the problem.  Commonly, we self-medicated with alcohol and or drugs to numb the pain and make the anxious feelings go away. Some of us were even depressed and the only escape from the darkness were self-destructing actions that compromised our relationships at home and in the fire house.  For anyone who feels as if there are no more options or no more hope, you are wrong.  Let’s take a look at a few very important imperatives that will help us take some first steps to getting the help that we need:

1) “I NEED HELP” – The first step is acknowledging that you need help.  Not necessarily that you have a drinking problem or addiction.  Those come AFTER not addressing your symptoms or stressors.  For the longest time, machoism reigned supreme in our beloved profession and it was looked at as a weakness to seek help.  Thankfully, our culture is slowly changing and that is not as prevalent as it used to be.  If anything, it is a sign of strength to seek help and address problems before they become a crisis.

2)Employee Assistance Program (EAP) – What does your EAP look like for your respective department?  Depending on the jurisdiction, the fire department may have an EAP that compliments the city program or the only option is the city program. Regardless, this invaluable resource is CONFIDENTIAL and your insurance will cover some if not all of your counseling sessions. Every jurisdiction is different.  There are programs that assist with substance abuse counseling, marital counseling (as a profession, we have very high divorce rates), and general mental health.  We have one of the most stressful professions there is and it is important to seek help early.

3)Decompress – In a healthy way – We have to find healthy ways to decompress and deal with the stressors of the job and with life.  Trying to find a healthy “work life balance” is a start.  Some like to hunt, some like to fish, some like to play chess, play sports, some like to play musical instruments or participate in non-profits including the church.  Everyone is different.  Find something that you enjoy doing, something that you can do with friends and family if possible to help sustain your mental health.

A firefighter who is suffering from depression, substance abuse, or is mentally unstable for whatever the reason, is a safety issue.  We have to convey the importance of seeking help early before it gets to the point that our brother or sister is a danger to him/herself or someone else.  As a fire chief, I have seen success stories and unfortunately, there were some that we reached too late and couldn’t save.  Although as individuals, some may say, “they made their bed, now they have to lay in it.”  10% of me agrees with that notion but 90% of me says, “That is our brother. That is our sister.”  As a fire service family, it is our responsibility to do everything in our power to help identify those who are starting to remove themselves from conversations, isolate themselves and not act like their normal selves.  A change in demeanor is one sign that someone is going through something that they may not be able to handle themselves.  Take 5 seconds to ask a simple question such as, “Are you ok? You seem to not be yourself lately?”  By asking that simple question, you may be the catalyst of change to keep that person from becoming self-destructive or maybe even save their life.

Due to the opioid epidemic, there have been numerous firefighters who have been injured on the job, prescribed opioids by their physicians and their lives turned upside down.  Once they have recovered from their injury and the prescriptions have run out, they turn to heroin which is cheap and largely easily accessible.  Firefighters have been on duty, high on heroin, driving apparatus and responding to emergencies.  All starting from an on the job injury and never used drugs prior to that.  I’ve seen it first hand and as the Chief, it broke my heart.  The first question I asked myself was, “Why didn’t I see this earlier? Is there something that I could have done to protect my member, my other firefighters and citizens that we are sworn to serve?”  When you think of safety issues to contend with on the job, one of the first things that you think of is not that.  For me, now it is.

Some who suffer from PTSD, mental illness or stress in general may ask themselves, “I serve to save but who is supposed to save me?”  The answer is simple. We as brothers and sisters are here or should be here to lift our fellow members up during their lowest points.  It is a safety issue for us as emergency responders and a safety issue for our citizens if we have members who are not able to focus on executing the mission.  Let’s not let anyone suffer in silence.  Let’s practice what we preach as a “brotherhood” and “sisterhood.”  By addressing problems before they become crisis one person at a time, we will collectively have a better fire service.

Reginald D. Freeman, MS, CFO, FIFireE

Reginald D. Freeman is the 37th Fire Chief/Emergency Management Director for the City of Hartford. Prior to the City of Hartford, Chief Freeman served as the international Fire Chief for Lockheed Martin and served as a civilian Fire Chief in Iraq for the U.S. Department of Defense from 2004-2008. He has worked in a number of fire service capacities in his career including Firefighter/Emergency Medical Technician (EMT), Fire Captain, Fire Service Instructor, Assistant Fire Chief, and Fire Chief. Chief Freeman’s educational accomplishments include a Bachelor of Arts in Leadership from Bellevue University in Bellevue, NE. He earned his Master’s Degree in Executive Fire Service Leadership from Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, AZ and he is currently pursuing his Doctorates in Organizational Leadership with an emphasis in Organizational Development. Chief Freeman is also a graduate and Fellow of Harvard University’s Senior Executives for State & Local Government program at the Kennedy School of Government. Chief Freeman previously served as the Chair of the Industrial Fire & Life Safety Section for the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and a previous Board member of the Executive Fire Officer Section of the IAFC and Technical Committee member of NFPA 1021 (Fire Officer Professional Qualifications), respectively.

Additionally, Chief Freeman serves as the Chairman for the Commission on Professional Credentialing via the Center for Public Safety Excellence, Inc. and is also the Director of Training for the Caribbean Association of Fire Chiefs. Chief Freeman is a credentialed Chief Fire Officer (CFO) through the Center for Public Safety Excellence, Inc. as well as a credentialed “Fellow” with the Institution of Fire Engineers, USA Branch. Lastly, Chief Freeman serves on the Board of Directors for NFPA.

Chief Freeman is an Adjunct Professor for Anna Maria College and the University of Florida where he lectures in both undergraduate and graduate Fire Science and Master of Public Administration programs.