A firefighter from Santa Rosa finds that lives were lost on the block he was called to in the early hours of a major disaster. Another learns that the young man he was struggling to save while dodging bullets in a Las Vegas arena didn’t make it. A captain watches as a firefighter under his command falls through a roof in a structure response.

Every day, California firefighters come face-to-face with stresses and tragedies few can imagine. In some cases, the toll of the job can push their brothers and sisters to the emotional brink. Sometimes ... tragically ... they go over the brink. 

“We train people to be battle hardened, but we don’t do as good a job after the call saying ‘Hey, I’m struggling,’” said Jeff Donabedian, president of Oxnard Firefighters Local 1684.

“What we’re seeing throughout the country is that firefighters are feeling isolated and overwhelmed,” said Pat Morrison, IAFF Health and Safety Director. “Unfortunately, some feel that the only way to stop feeling like this is to take themselves out.”

As the role of California firefighters transforms, the risk to the behavioral health and wellness of firefighters is also transforming. Alongside the cancer epidemic in the fire service, behavioral health has become a central health and safety issue for the profession. In response, California’s fire service leadership – labor and management – is coming together with a unified approach.

Leaders of four statewide fire service organizations – CPF, CalChefs, Cal-OES and Cal-JAC -- signed on to a labor-management behavioral health and wellness initiative, sponsored by the California Fire Service Behavioral Health Task Force (see pg. 9). The Behavioral Health Task Force – created in the aftermath of 2016’s groundbreaking Joint Behavioral Health Conference – is comprised of nearly two dozen management and labor representatives from local, state and federal fire agencies. Its goal: make emotional wellness and post-traumatic stress injuries a health and safety priority in the California fire service.

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Breaking the Stigma

For many firefighters, addressing behavioral health injuries means moving beyond a prevalent culture in the profession – one that equates job-related emotional struggles with weakness. “When I first came up and somebody would say they were having a problem with a call, we’d razz them,” said Sacramento Metro Fire Captain Bob Bruce. “It’s one of those things that are passed down through the generations, and it’s not always a good thing."

As a first step, the task force is launching an outreach campaign aimed at breaking this potentially devastating stigma. The new "Healing Our Own" website – www.healingourown.org – features first-person accounts of firefighters detailing their experiences, and the impact it had on their emotional health, along with resources for those seeking help, and those who want to help others. 

As the campaign unfolds, localized outreach material, toolkits and updates will be available, all focused on firefighters themselves. “Our goal is to get our members to come out of the shadows, raise their hand to look for help, and access the resources they need,” said Dave Gillotte, L.A. County Firefighters Local 1014 president and chair of the task force.

A Commitment to a Healthier Fire Service

Beyond outreach, the Task Force is looking for all California fire departments – through their labor presidents and fire chiefs – to commit themselves to working toward awareness, counseling and treatment of our firefighters at risk from post-traumatic stress injury. 

Commitment letters like the one signed by all four of the state’s fire service leaders, are being circulated to all California fire departments. Fire chiefs and labor presidents are being asked to sign the statements, allowing them to stand up for the behavioral health of all firefighters. “Bringing labor and management together on behavioral health matters is key … it has to happen,” said Donabedian.

“Post-traumatic stress (or behavioral injury) is real, and we have to make sure people understand that,” noted Morrison, “but it is not a life sentence, and it doesn’t mean you have to stop being a firefighter.”

For more information, visit www.healingourown.org