Five Questions on Department Mental Health Every Fire Chief Should Review

by Peggy Sweeney

The job of a fire chief is never easy. Whether you lead a volunteer company of 10 or a career department of several thousand, your bottom line is, or should be, the physical safety and mental and emotional wellness of your men and women.

I ask each of you as leaders of your department to take a step back and candidly review your attitude about the mental and emotional wellness of your department:

peer abuse… any figure of authority or power which may use intimidation as a primary means of motivating others… could rightfully be referred to as a bully” —Bullying/Wikipedia

1. Do you criticize or shun a firefighter because he or she struggles with the emotional aftereffects of traumatic calls? Do you turn a deaf ear when members of your department make fun of or bully them (also known as “peer abuse”)?

The mantra “suck it up and go on” is a cliché of the past.

2. Are you in tune with other struggles your firefighters may be having; such as, alcoholism or other addictive behaviors, marital problems, grief over the death of a loved one, financial worries? Is your office a “safe place” for firefighters to seek help and advice for coping with these issues?

3. If a firefighter has been permanently injured on or off the job or has retired, do you provide a welcoming environment at your station for them to visit so that they may feel as though they are still part of the profession they love and miss? Many disabled and retired firefighters want and need the camaraderie.

4. Do you provide printed materials and/or training programs on topics such as: addiction recovery, building healthy relationships, anger management, coping with grief, depression, post traumatic stress, suicide intervention and prevention? Do you have qualified mental health professionals available for counseling your firefighters without fear that they will be labeled as weak or unfit?

5. If your department has suffered the line of duty or non-duty related death of a firefighter, do you offer a program and/or resources on coping with grief for your department and the grieving family?

6. If your department has been tragically touched by the suicide of one of your own did you, as the chief, lead your department in showing respect and appreciation for their service as a firefighter as well as comforting their loved ones? Or did you stigmatize the death and turn your back on their grieving family? I personally consider not honoring this firefighter’s years of service and ignoring the grieving family to be unconscionable!

Your rank does not elevate you to super human status.

Where do you stand on these issues? Remember, some chiefs suffer from addiction, depression, PTS (post traumatic stress), and thoughts of suicide also.

In closing, I would like to encourage you to:

    1. Signup for Email Updates below
    2. Promote and share the Life Skills site with the members of your department
    3. In  addition to the Life Skills  newsletter and website, I also offer a Grief Study online program which provides information and resources for coping with traumatic loss and grief. This is beneficial for your firefighters and also their families.

The purpose of these two websites is to provide valuable resources and contact information for people and organizations that help emergency responders become better equipped to handle the day-to-day emotional traumas of their job as well as the struggles that come with being a spouse, parent, adult child or sibling. The newsletters and websites also provide information to help firefighters choose life not death.

I have one last question. Does your voice offer a positive change for the fire service?

Copyright Peggy Sweeney. All rights reserved.

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About the Author: Peggy Sweeney began her career as a mortician and bereavement educator thirty years ago. Since 1990, Peggy has developed and taught countless workshops on coping with traumatic loss and grief for professionals and families including the Grieving Behind  the Badge program for public safety officers, emergency response professionals and their families.

She received numerous certifications including Bereavement Trauma and Emergency Crisis Response from the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress. She has hosted monthly support groups including Comfort and Conversation for grieving adults and teens and Halo of Love for bereaved parents.

Peggy also served her various communities as a firefighter, EMT-B and Hospice volunteer. She has devoted her time and efforts to making a positive change in the lives of others and reducing the number of suicides which are becoming all too common in the military and first responder communities.

Her editorial contributions have earned her several awards and have been featured in both print and electronic media including an article in the Firemen’s Bible by the Holman Bible Editorial Staff. She was humbled to receive the Firefighter of the Year award from her Texas fire department.

No stranger to grief, Peggy has experienced grief numerous times: the sudden death of her dad in 1975, the slow death of her mother to illness in 2002, the suicide death of her 39 year old brother-in-law, the years of waiting for her estranged son to contact his family. But the most painful grief she have felt is the death of my baby due to an ectopic pregnancy.

You may contact Peggy if you have a question or wish to suggest a topic of interest.

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