Share the Load: A Support Program for Fire and EMS

Firefighters and EMTs 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. At the same time, they juggle the needs of the fire department, their families, outside interests, and for volunteers, full-time jobs. What most don’t want to admit is the toll all of this takes on their behavioral health. 
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and this presents a good opportunity to open the discussion within your department on behavioral health. Behavioral health is a term that encompasses a wide array of issues, including depression, PTSD, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, addiction, and more. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates about 43 million Americans have a diagnosable mental disorder. 
Not addressing behavioral health issues can have tragic consequences. Many first responders find themselves caught in a cycle of addiction. Divorce rates among first responders have been reported to be as high as 80%. The firefighter behavioral health alliance has received 641 reports of firefighter and EMT suicides; 46 of these happened in the first five months of 2015.
We need to change the culture within the fire service to one that recognizes many emergency service personnel struggle with behavioral health issues, and that this is understandable and okay. Together we can break the stigma surrounding behavioral health and offer a place for those suffering to turn to for help. Together we can prevent tragic outcomes and be there for our brother and sister firefighters in need.
The National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) created the Share the Load™ program to help individuals dealing with behavioral health issues and to provide departments with resources for implementing a behavioral health and wellness program. By addressing behavioral health head on we can build a stronger, healthier, more resilient fire service.
Components of the Share the Load program include the following:
  • Fire/EMS Helpline: The NVFC and American Addiction Centers teamed up to provide a free, confidential helpline available 24/7 to members of the fire, emergency medical, and rescue services and their families. Call 1-888-731-FIRE (3473) with any behavioral health issue, such as anxiety, depression, burnout, stress, PTSD, addiction, relationship problems, and more.
  • Warning Signs to Know: This brief video alerts first responders and their families to common warning signs of five behavioral health issues firefighters and EMTs may face.
  • Share the Load 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 many behavioral health issues.
  • Share the Load Outreach Materials: The NVFC provides a poster that can be hung up at the station and an ad that can be placed in department publications that advertises the Fire/EMS Helpline and encourages first responders to reach out if they need help.
  • What to Expect: A Guide for Family Members of Volunteer Firefighters: Joining the volunteer fire service means a lifestyle change for the entire family. This guide helps family members understand what to expect and provides tips and information for keeping family relationships strong and being part of the fire department family.
  • Suicide in the Fire and Emergency Services – Adopting a Proactive Approach to Behavioral Health Awareness and Suicide Prevention: This report explores various firefighter/EMT behavioral health concerns and identifies resources and best practices for mental wellness and suicide prevention in the fire and emergency services.
  • Preventing and Coping with Suicide in the Fire and Emergency Services: This online training course, available through the NVFC Virtual Classroom, contains three modules that examine the signs and symptoms preceding suicide, highlight available resources for departments and individuals, and discuss the healing process when coping with a firefighter suicide.
  • Brotherhood vs. Parenthood – Finding your Life Balance: This webinar, available through the NVFC Virtual Classroom, looks at all the roles a volunteer firefighter plays throughout their lives and helps you identify strategies for prioritizing each aspect of your life to achieve better balance and time management.
  • Putting Out the Fire – Stress Resilience Strategies: Stress is an underlying risk factor that affects a majority of the population, especially first responders. This webinar, available through the NVFC Virtual Classroom, helps you key in on the types of stressors most prominent for firefighters and how to successfully manage stress as it arises.
  • Behavioral Health Resource Center: This online compilation of organizations, resources, reports, and trainings can assist individuals seeking help for a behavioral health issue as well as departments looking to implement or enhance a behavioral health program.
Learn more about the program and access resources at