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Why a Focus on Mental Health and Communication is Vital to Job Performance in the Fire Service

by  Public Safety Group     Mar 26, 2024
man_talking_therapy

Roosevelt Johns has seen it all. He’s been in the fire service for four decades. Currently, he is the Director of Chaplaincy for the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department, which means he’s heard it all, too.

His role is to support firefighters and their families during difficult times, but also joyous times too, he says. Essentially, he is a highly trained and experienced firefighter and counselor embedded within the fire department.

“I’ve walked in the journey of a firefighter,” he says in an interview. I understand a pretty rounded view of what it means to be a firefighter.” 

It is widely understood that firefighters face numerous challenges in their profession that can have a significant impact on their mental health. The nature of their work exposes them to traumatic events, including witnessing accidents, injuries, and even death.

These experiences can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health issues. Additionally, firefighters often work long hours, irregular schedules, facing high levels of physical and mental stress. These factors can contribute to increased anxiety, depression, and substance abuse among firefighters.

What is not yet known is the widespread emergence of firehouses creating a culture of support.

Watch our interview with Chaplain Johns to learn more about how creating a culture of communication on mental health issues starts at the top in the fire service.

Impact of Mental Health on Performance

Firefighters who are struggling with mental health issues may experience difficulties in making decisions, maintaining focus, and reacting quickly to emergencies. These challenges can increase the risk of errors and accidents, putting both firefighters and the public at risk.

Johns says there is another issue facing firefighters today: Firefighters are facing more calls than ever. Though the number of calls dipped during 2020 at the height of the COVID pandemic, they have increased every year before and since.

“Nowadays, firefighters don’t really have the time to debrief or rebound before the next call,” he says. “They’re constantly being inundated with tragedy.”

Benefits of Seeking Mental Health Support

Johns says it’s not out of the ordinary for a brand-new recruit to see a dozen such calls his or her first month on the job.

“That’s a lot for a brand-new person to embrace early on in their career,” he says.

Johns adds that what makes matters worse is that firefighters are cautious when it comes to discussing their mental health. They’re typically afraid of being labeled or judged if others find out.

“Is this stigma real and is it true? Absolutely it is,” he says.

But seeking mental health support is crucial for firefighters to maintain their well-being and performance. This starts at the top.

Johns says he tries to break through to firefighters in his department through transparency.

“If I’m able to let them know honestly how I feel and how I’ve felt related to some of the things that I’ve seen, it tends to give them a perspective that, ‘Maybe I can talk about this and it not be harmful in doing so,’” he says.

He urges fire leaders to do the same. These are the people, after all, who have the tenure, stories, and experience to be able to share.

By talking to someone, firefighters can receive the necessary support and resources to cope with the challenges they face. This also can include counseling, therapy, peer support programs, and access to mental health professionals who specialize in working with first responders.

Engaging in mental health support can help firefighters develop healthy coping mechanisms, reduce the impact of traumatic events, and improve their overall resilience. It can also provide a safe space for firefighters to discuss their experiences and emotions, leading to a stronger support network and sense of camaraderie within the fire service.

Strategies for Implementing Mental Health Support Programs: Get to the Firefighters Early in Their Careers

Johns says that impressing upon new recruits that he is there to support them is key to the success of his program.

“I’ll get called in even before a person hits the field,” he says. “This is so that we can help them navigate the work and set the tone for the future.”

It is essential to create a culture that prioritizes mental health and destigmatizes seeking help. This can be achieved through awareness campaigns, training programs, and open discussions about mental health. Fire service leadership should actively promote and encourage the utilization of mental health resources.

Additionally, providing easy access to mental health services is crucial. This can include establishing partnerships with mental health organizations, offering confidential counseling services, and integrating mental health professionals into the fire service. Regular check-ins and mandatory mental health assessments can also help identify early signs of distress and ensure firefighters receive timely support.

Appealing to Today’s Generation Is Different for Fire Leadership

The good news for fire leaders looking to implement a counseling program is that today’s generation is more open to seeking mental health care, according to Johns.

“You’ve probably heard the terms, ‘Suck it up!’ ‘Toughen up!’ ‘You’ll get over this!” Johns says. “This is the kind of guidance we were given coming through. That’s no longer the case.”

Johns’ program is working in Atlanta. But he doesn’t do it alone. Atlanta has a peer support team, and other departments are bringing peer support teams on. He sees this as a big first step toward widespread acceptance.

Johns deeply believes in this work. He says it is not straightforward, but incredibly necessary in the fire service.

“You may not always need a chaplain, you may not always need a clinician, but you certainly need someone you can talk to in confidence about your current experiences,” he says.

Fundamentals of Firefighter Skills and Hazardous Materials Response Includes Navigate Premier Access

Fundamentals of Firefighter Skills and Hazardous Materials Response, Fifth Edition, provides new content that meets the intent of NFPA 1010, 2024 Edition Standard on Professional Qualifications for Firefighters that includes Chapter 6: Firefighter I (NFPA 1001) and Chapter 7: Firefighter II (NFPA 1001).

Request Your Digital Review Copy
Fundamentals of Firefighter Skills and Hazardous Materials Response Includes Navigate Premier Access

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Why a Focus on Mental Health and Communication is Vital to Job Performance in the Fire Service

by  Public Safety Group     Mar 26, 2024
man_talking_therapy

Roosevelt Johns has seen it all. He’s been in the fire service for four decades. Currently, he is the Director of Chaplaincy for the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department, which means he’s heard it all, too.

His role is to support firefighters and their families during difficult times, but also joyous times too, he says. Essentially, he is a highly trained and experienced firefighter and counselor embedded within the fire department.

“I’ve walked in the journey of a firefighter,” he says in an interview. I understand a pretty rounded view of what it means to be a firefighter.” 

It is widely understood that firefighters face numerous challenges in their profession that can have a significant impact on their mental health. The nature of their work exposes them to traumatic events, including witnessing accidents, injuries, and even death.

These experiences can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health issues. Additionally, firefighters often work long hours, irregular schedules, facing high levels of physical and mental stress. These factors can contribute to increased anxiety, depression, and substance abuse among firefighters.

What is not yet known is the widespread emergence of firehouses creating a culture of support.

Watch our interview with Chaplain Johns to learn more about how creating a culture of communication on mental health issues starts at the top in the fire service.

Impact of Mental Health on Performance

Firefighters who are struggling with mental health issues may experience difficulties in making decisions, maintaining focus, and reacting quickly to emergencies. These challenges can increase the risk of errors and accidents, putting both firefighters and the public at risk.

Johns says there is another issue facing firefighters today: Firefighters are facing more calls than ever. Though the number of calls dipped during 2020 at the height of the COVID pandemic, they have increased every year before and since.

“Nowadays, firefighters don’t really have the time to debrief or rebound before the next call,” he says. “They’re constantly being inundated with tragedy.”

Benefits of Seeking Mental Health Support

Johns says it’s not out of the ordinary for a brand-new recruit to see a dozen such calls his or her first month on the job.

“That’s a lot for a brand-new person to embrace early on in their career,” he says.

Johns adds that what makes matters worse is that firefighters are cautious when it comes to discussing their mental health. They’re typically afraid of being labeled or judged if others find out.

“Is this stigma real and is it true? Absolutely it is,” he says.

But seeking mental health support is crucial for firefighters to maintain their well-being and performance. This starts at the top.

Johns says he tries to break through to firefighters in his department through transparency.

“If I’m able to let them know honestly how I feel and how I’ve felt related to some of the things that I’ve seen, it tends to give them a perspective that, ‘Maybe I can talk about this and it not be harmful in doing so,’” he says.

He urges fire leaders to do the same. These are the people, after all, who have the tenure, stories, and experience to be able to share.

By talking to someone, firefighters can receive the necessary support and resources to cope with the challenges they face. This also can include counseling, therapy, peer support programs, and access to mental health professionals who specialize in working with first responders.

Engaging in mental health support can help firefighters develop healthy coping mechanisms, reduce the impact of traumatic events, and improve their overall resilience. It can also provide a safe space for firefighters to discuss their experiences and emotions, leading to a stronger support network and sense of camaraderie within the fire service.

Strategies for Implementing Mental Health Support Programs: Get to the Firefighters Early in Their Careers

Johns says that impressing upon new recruits that he is there to support them is key to the success of his program.

“I’ll get called in even before a person hits the field,” he says. “This is so that we can help them navigate the work and set the tone for the future.”

It is essential to create a culture that prioritizes mental health and destigmatizes seeking help. This can be achieved through awareness campaigns, training programs, and open discussions about mental health. Fire service leadership should actively promote and encourage the utilization of mental health resources.

Additionally, providing easy access to mental health services is crucial. This can include establishing partnerships with mental health organizations, offering confidential counseling services, and integrating mental health professionals into the fire service. Regular check-ins and mandatory mental health assessments can also help identify early signs of distress and ensure firefighters receive timely support.

Appealing to Today’s Generation Is Different for Fire Leadership

The good news for fire leaders looking to implement a counseling program is that today’s generation is more open to seeking mental health care, according to Johns.

“You’ve probably heard the terms, ‘Suck it up!’ ‘Toughen up!’ ‘You’ll get over this!” Johns says. “This is the kind of guidance we were given coming through. That’s no longer the case.”

Johns’ program is working in Atlanta. But he doesn’t do it alone. Atlanta has a peer support team, and other departments are bringing peer support teams on. He sees this as a big first step toward widespread acceptance.

Johns deeply believes in this work. He says it is not straightforward, but incredibly necessary in the fire service.

“You may not always need a chaplain, you may not always need a clinician, but you certainly need someone you can talk to in confidence about your current experiences,” he says.

Fundamentals of Firefighter Skills and Hazardous Materials Response Includes Navigate Premier Access

Fundamentals of Firefighter Skills and Hazardous Materials Response, Fifth Edition, provides new content that meets the intent of NFPA 1010, 2024 Edition Standard on Professional Qualifications for Firefighters that includes Chapter 6: Firefighter I (NFPA 1001) and Chapter 7: Firefighter II (NFPA 1001).

Request Your Digital Review Copy
Fundamentals of Firefighter Skills and Hazardous Materials Response Includes Navigate Premier Access

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