Share the Load: Behavioral Health Support for Fire/EMS

                       Photo courtesy of Lauralee Veitch

Firefighters and EMS providers are expected to run in when everyone else is running out. Fires, traffic accidents, domestic abuse, shootings, medical emergencies – first responders see and hear it all. Yet what many overlook is the mental and emotional toll these incidents can have on those who answer the call. May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and now is a good time to highlight the importance of behavioral health in your department and ensure your members know where to turn if they need help.

Every department and emergency responder is impacted by behavioral health concerns in some way or other. Firefighters and EMS providers are frequently placed in dangerous and life-threatening circumstances, and are on the front-lines of the worst situations. At the same time, they juggle the needs of the fire department, their families, outside interests, and for volunteers, full-time jobs. This is on top of everyday stressors and often poor sleep and fitness patterns. These factors all play a role in the mental well-being of those who serve.

Behavioral health can cover a wide variety of health issues for firefighters and emergency responders, such as stress, anxiety, sleep problems, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and drug or alcohol addiction, to name a few. In some cases, unaddressed behavioral health issues can lead to suicide – the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance receives more reports of firefighter and EMS suicides each year than there are on-duty deaths.

Behavioral health needs to be at the forefront of the conversation in the fire service. A key step in preventing tragic outcomes is for personnel to be able to talk openly about behavioral health issues. Behavioral health is just as important as physical health and needs to be treated that way. Departments should train their members on why behavioral health is important, what risk factors they face, how to recognize signs and symptoms, and what to do if they or a fellow firefighter or EMT needs help.

The National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) provides tools and resources to help bring behavioral health to the forefront. Through the Share the Load™ program, the NVFC is working to break the stigma surrounding behavioral health issues, open up the dialogue in departments, and provide resources departments and emergency personnel can use to prevent tragedy.

Resources available through the Share the Load program include the following:

  • Fire/EMS Helpline: First responders and their families can call the free, confidential Fire/EMS Helpline at 1-888-731-FIRE (3473) any time day or night for help with any behavioral health issue. The helpline is run by NVFC partner American Addiction Centers.
  • Helpletter: This newsletter features articles from subject matter experts and fire service veterans who provide tips, tools, and resources to help first responders and departments take a proactive approach in addressing behavioral health issues.
  • Outreach Materials: Posters and flyers are available to help departments promote the Fire/EMS Helpline and to remind responders to seek help if they are struggling.
  • What to Expect – A Guide for Family Members of Volunteer Firefighters: This guide for family members provides an introduction to the basics of the volunteer firefighter life, guidance for keeping family relationships strong, and tips and resources to help first responder families adjust to this lifestyle.
  • Behavioral Health Awareness and Suicide Prevention Report: This guide explores various firefighter/EMS behavioral health concerns and identifies resources and best practices for mental wellness and suicide prevention in the fire and emergency services.
  • Behavioral Health Training: The NVFC offers courses in its Virtual Classroom on behavioral health, preventing suicide in the fire and emergency services, balancing fire service duties with family life, and dealing with stress.
  • Behavioral Health Resource Center: This compendium of fire and emergency services behavioral health resources includes organizations, programs, helplines, reports, and training.

The key to addressing behavioral health is to take action. Those experiencing behavioral health issues are not alone. Help us Share the Load and show our brothers and sisters in the fire service that together we can face these challenges and build a stronger, healthier, more resilient fire service. Learn more at www.nvfc.org/help.