Volunteer Firefighter International

5 Ways to Improve Volunteer Firefighter Mental Health

In the upside-down world of COVID-19, a real mental health crisis is growing in the first responder community

By John Buckman III, Wildfire Studios

Over the past nine months we have been confronted with the realities of a pandemic unlike anything that we have experienced in our lifetime.

  • Stay at home orders
  • Work from home
  • Wear a mask everywhere
  • Limit gathering to small groups
  • Social distancing
  • Avoid family gathering

In the first-response community we have been confronted with several new issues.

  • Increase in civil disturbance
  • Limiting personnel access to patients
  • Checking on their virus status before beginning treatment
  • Wearing a mask
  • Limited station transfers
  • Volunteers increase concern about taking the virus home and exposing their family

How has the pandemic changed your mental balance? It is not the “new normal” it is the “normal” we must confront every day in our current life and for the foreseeable future.

COVID-19 has thrown our economy into recession. This recession impacts our firefighters mental health and creates new challenges for those who are already suffering from mental wellness in two ways. The increased drugs and alcohol use can be a symptom of poor mental wellness, and increased worry and stress is having consequences for our response personnel.

Related: How Fire Depts Can Prepare for the Next COVID-19 Spike

In 2017, the International Association of Fire Chiefs and its Volunteer and Combination Officers Section published the 40-page The Yellow Ribbon Report — Under the Helmet: Performing an Internal Size-Up. On page 20, the report talks about other symptoms that might be of consequence to our members.

Those include social isolation and loneliness attribute to one’s poor mental wellness. Increased depression, anxiety, distress and low self-esteem may lead to higher rates of substance abuse and suicidal tendencies.

Firefighters who are running more calls are experiencing poor mental health due to burnout or compassion fatigue. This will increase anxiety or mental illness among those with poor physical health. Those with mental illness and substance use disorders pre-pandemic, and those newly affected, will likely require mental health and substance abuse services.

Related: So You’re not the Fire Chief Anymore

The pandemic spotlights the inability to access mental health and substance abuse disorder services. The use of tele-medicine, especially in the mental health industry, can cause additional stress on our first responders.

All of this adds up to new challenges for our leadership. Leaders today must take care of themselves first, but also have an increased awareness of the challenges our personnel are facing.

Action is necessary. It is not just about observing our behaviors when we are sitting around the kitchen table. It has to be a leader’s top priority to engage our personnel in those difficult and uncomfortable discussion about their mental wellness in an unaggressive manner. Mental wellness cannot be left on the back burner.

Observing a person’s behavior, mannerisms, attitude, outlook on life will require our leaders to be more like a brother or sister to them. If you are a leader and see a change in the other person, you will have to be upfront and honest with them about your observation. These actions, although uncomfortable, are necessary to show that you care and maybe help that person change the direction they might be going down.

Poor mental wellness due to burnout or compassion fatigue can increase anxiety or mental illness among those with poor physical health. Many of these conditions existed before the pandemic and have made mental wellness issues worse.

More than 17 million adults in 2017-2018 had a major depressive episode in the past year. How many of our firefighters are in that group? What actions can leaders take?

Here are five steps to take today in your fire department.

1 Bring mental wellness to the table.

  • Talk about mental wellness
  • Talk about your experience with mental wellness
  • Listen
  • Ask the tough questions — have you considered suicide?
  • Establish trust
  • Additional actionable items on page 14 of the original Yellow Ribbon Report

2 Change the language around the station.

  • It has been called “earning your position” but is a form of“bullying or“harassment
  • Words matter (both positive and negative)
  • Words can hurt (most who are hurt won’t publicly admit it)
  • Statements made by superiors that attempt to downgrade or embarrass others do absolutely nothing to improve a firefighter’s self-esteem

3 Learn as much as you can about mental wellness.

  • Share the information you learn with your firefighters

4 Encourage improvements in physical health.

  • Improve eating habits
  • Increase sleep
  • Reduce alcohol intake
  • Increase physical activities

5 Allocate your time wisely.

  • Increase family time
  • Balance friends time
  • Get off the couch
  • Enjoy a hobby


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