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How Strong Leadership Can Create a Healthier Firehouse Culture

By Greg Benson, retired fire chief of Fox River & Countryside Fire/Rescue (IL)

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) affects both career and volunteer firefighters. While many in the fire service think PTSD is a greater problem for career firefighters, that’s not the case. Department leadership must provide mental health support for all firefighters, regardless of their compensation status.

Volunteer firefighters are subjected to the same types of calls as career members. In some cases, trauma may have a greater impact on volunteers. In small towns and cities that rely on volunteers, it is not uncommon for them to personally know the victims when they respond to a fatal vehicle accident or house fire.

[Related: The Challenge of Recognizing PTSD in Firefighters]

While more is being done to address PTSD in the fire service than in the past, many firefighters remain reluctant to seek support. Firefighters are concerned about stigmas, loss of promotional opportunities, and how formal leadership will respond.

An Outdated Firehouse Culture

The culture and traditions of the fire service often stand in the way of firefighters seeking help they need. Mission and value statements are prevalent and important in the fire service. It is not uncommon to see a variation of “our personnel are our greatest asset” in these statements and values. However, personnel who are affected by PTSD are often treated in a less than acceptable manner.

Firefighters have been subjected to extremely poor leadership actions or even terminated after suffering from PTSD. How many firefighters have taken their lives after, or at the prospect of, being treated this way?

Fire service leaders often do not realize the negative impact they are making. Most leaders come up through the ranks to attain their current leadership positions. When they were in line positions, they were told to “man up” to cope with difficult and traumatic incidents. Now that these individuals are in leadership positions, they do not have personal experience with healthy or proactive methods to address trauma in their workforce.

Fire department leaders must actively learn how to recognize the signs of PTSD and know the proper channels to get firefighters the help they need. They must lead the way to update firehouse culture by implementing policies and procedures to help line personnel manage PTSD in a non-threating manner.

Where Leadership is Falling Short

The same effort and resources must be applied to personnel matters as to technical problem solving. Departments spend an extensive amount of time on learning skills to solve or manage incidents in the field. Fire service leaders are generally good at fixing technical problems by taking definitive action. In contrast, there is a lack of training and education in “soft areas” such as the mental health awareness.

This training gap has created a blind spot in the current leadership where they lack the knowledge to properly manage a responder with PTSD.  Leaders must learn that PTSD cannot be solved in the same manner as technical problems that firefighters encounter. There is no one correct response to manage stress.

In one case I’m aware of, a firefighter’s condition was met with hostility from his department, which exacerbated his PTSD and impeded treatment. Instead of receiving support from his Chief and DC, he was threatened with termination. Personality changes in those affected should have no part in how leaders respond. A change in personality is a common sign of PTSD, so if a firefighter is exhibiting this, leadership must not punish them for it but recognize that they need to seek help for the person.

 [Related: Building the Right Resources to Prevent Firefighter Suicides]

When fire leaders ignore or poorly address mental and behavioral issues, it has a negative impact on operations and overall department confidence. When firefighters see what happens to a fellow firefighter, they are likely to question what might happen to them in the same situation.

This erosion of confidence in leadership can extend negatively to other operational and department areas. Numerous studies have reinforced the importance of morale in high-hazard occupancies. Department morale, like culture, can be managed and is highly dependent on leaders supporting the physical and mental health or their personnel.

Steps Departments Must Take

Departments must have policies and procedures in place for guidance when personnel do suffer from PTSD. The role of line officers is particularly critical. Line officers are present with their crews at incidents that may lead to PTSD and are often in the best position to observe behavioral changes. But it’s the responsibility of all firefighters to be on the lookout for signs of PTSD.

Observing and knowing when a firefighter needs help is essential. Jeff Dill, a retired fire Captain and founder of the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance, developed five warning signs that indicate firefighter behavioral health issues. The acronym RAILS is used to remember these symptoms:

  1. Recklessness or impulsive behavior
  2. Anger that results from minor issues
  3. Isolation from fellow firefighters or family
  4. Losing confidence in skills
  5. Sleep difficulty

Evolving to active management of PTSD by early notification is essential to saving lives. It wasn’t long ago that firefighters would not call a mayday when they were in physical danger on a fire scene until it was too late, but the fire service has worked to change this. Supporting the same changes in reporting PTSD should be a priority.

If nothing else, leaders should consider the cost of losing a firefighter to PTSD. Losing a firefighter from the job is a loss of experience, knowledge, and hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in training and equipment. However, if that firefighter is provided treatment, there’s a very good chance he or she can continue serving, which saves the department money – and maybe even that person’s life and livelihood.

Fire service leaders have a moral and ethical obligation to get line officers the help they need. True leaders treat their firefighters with the respect they deserve and advocate for their best interests. Fire department leadership must take the steps to establish department policies and procedures for personnel affected by PTSD. Your personnel are depending on you to do the right thing.

About the Author:

Greg Benson is a retired Fire Chief with over 35 years of public safety experience. He has extensive experience in response and command over a wide variety of emergency incidents. Benson now works in developing public/private partnerships to improve preparedness capabilities and reduce vulnerabilities. He holds a Master in Public Administration and is designated a Chief Fire Officer by the Center for Public Safety Excellence. Benson has obtained numerous advanced fire service certifications and is an instructor in university undergraduate and graduate level in emergency management, cybersecurity, target hardening, and other public safety courses.

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