How Fire Service Culture Can Drive Good Behavioral Health

By David Ballard, PsyD

Service before self. This core value and others embedded in the fire service culture emphasize the sense of honor, duty, and sacrifice for the greater good that makes firefighters iconic heroes in our communities. Even the most desirable characteristics can have a downside, however, and the associated expectation to be tough, aggressive, selfless, and resilient in the face of danger can inadvertently create barriers to self-care that lead to health and safety risks and a reluctance to seek help when it comes to behavioral health issues.

Despite the talk in recent years about the need to change fire service culture, a closer examination of the norms, values, and beliefs already in place suggests that the existing foundation can actually serve to promote the behaviors necessary to improve firefighter health and performance.

Organizational Culture

An organization’s culture is the set of norms, values, and beliefs that guides its members’ behavior. A strong, long-established culture, like that of the fire service, isn’t something you simply create or change. Culture is developed over the entire life of a group based on what it has experienced and learned. Culture can have a strong influence, and group members may not even be aware of how much it shapes their behavior.

According to Edgar Schein, Professor Emeritus at the MIT Sloan School of Management, culture functions at several levels, from highly visible symbols and imagery such as uniforms, patches, logos, mottos, equipment, and protocols to stated values and beliefs and the deeper underlying assumptions and unspoken rules that govern how people make decisions, behave, and interact with each other.

When addressing an identified problem, there are aspects of the culture that can help you solve the problem and other aspects that will get in the way. From this perspective, you can leverage cultural strengths to help you solve the problem and address any barriers in a way that still fits the existing culture.

Behavioral Health as Part of Fire Service Culture

              Photo courtesy of Lauralee Veitch

Underutilization of behavioral health resources is an area of concern. Focus groups funded by FEMA through Department of Homeland Security Fire Prevention and Safety Grants explored the current status of behavioral health programs in the fire service and identified barriers including lack of trust, education, communication, and leadership support, as well as fear of reprisal and stigma.

Support starts with access to good-quality mental health services, but doesn’t stop there. Integrating behavioral health and emotional well-being into all of your department’s health and wellness efforts is key, so it becomes a normal part of the discussion. Although some aspects of fire service culture may contribute to firefighters looking the other way when it comes to signs that their colleagues may be struggling, or feeling ashamed and going to great lengths to hide problems of their own, other elements of the culture can be sources of great strength.

  • Service mentality – Firefighters have a strong sense of duty and service to others, even to the point of risking their lives to help a total stranger. Psychological well-being isn’t just about your emotions and how you feel. It’s also a driver of job performance. Taking care of your mental and emotional health helps keep you sharp and focused in the high-stress, high-risk work settings where first responders operate, so your department can provide the level of service your community deserves. When you tap into behavioral health services, you’re not just doing it for yourself, you’re also doing something that benefits the people who put their lives in your hands.
  • Loyalty – Firefighters take care of their own. Having each other’s backs doesn’t start when your boots hit the fireground. Being there for your colleagues means paying attention to signs that someone is struggling, supporting them during challenging times, and having difficult conversations from time to time. By providing social support and encouraging your fellow firefighters to tap into available behavioral health resources, you demonstrate the strength of your bond and willingness to step outside your comfort zone for the welfare of those you care about and the functioning of the team.
  • Seniority and experience – Seasoned veterans in your department play an important role as authority figures in the fire service and flag bearers of its culture. Beyond helping rookies develop job skills and knowledge of the community, senior firefighters set the tone when it comes to expected behavior, pass down the department legends, and serve as role models for how to cope with challenges, both on and off the job. A veteran firefighter who openly shares their story or lessons about the importance of good behavioral health can encourage an environment where those topics are no longer taboo and department members feel safe to raise issues or concerns they may have.
  • Command and control leadership – The hierarchical nature of fire departments presents an opportunity for leaders to directly address behavioral health and its link to a healthy, safe, high-performing department. By actively sharing information about available resources, such as counseling, and how to access them, and arranging training and education about mental health issues, department leaders can set an expectation that part of being an effective firefighter is maintaining good health, which includes emotional well-being. Leadership support doesn’t stop with hanging posters and distributing helpline phone numbers. By serving as role models in normalizing discussion of mental health, helping firefighters access the resources they need, and providing emotional support, department leaders play a key role in shaping a culture that supports behavioral health.
  • Assertiveness, courage, and risk taking – As first responders to fires, automobile accidents, medical emergencies, and other hazardous situations, firefighters are regularly exposed to dangerous and potentially traumatic events. Despite bravery in the face of life-threatening events, admitting to a behavioral health problem can feel overwhelming to even the most seasoned firefighter, who is used to being a pillar of strength in service to others. True courage comes from actively seeking help when you need it and relying on each other to make it through the challenging times that we all face. Behavioral health treatment works and can help get you back up and functioning at your full capacity in a job that’s critical to a safe, healthy, thriving community.

Although the topic of behavioral health is relatively new when it comes to firehouse conversations and may not seem like a natural fit, many of the norms and values that already exist in fire service culture can help support a focus on psychological well-being and make your department stronger and more effective together.

David W. Ballard, PsyD, MBA is the assistant executive director for organizational excellence at the American Psychological Association (APA), where he is responsible for providing leadership, direction, evaluation, and management for all activities related to APA’s Center for Organizational Excellence. The Center houses APA’s Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program (PHWP), a public education initiative designed to promote programs and policies that enhance employee wellbeing and organizational performance.

* Article reprinted from the NVFC Helpletter