When they answer the call of becoming a first responder, they enter a family of brothers and sisters. It’s a unique bond that can only be understood by those in the uniform.
“We share things with our brother and sister firefighters that we would not share at home,” Burlington Fire Department Battalion Chief Troy Ruggles said.
Ruggles has been a part of the brother/sisterhood for about 30 years. He says because his firefighter brothers and sisters have been by his side through tough experiences, they understand the struggles.
But years of tradition has kept some from asking for help.
“We’ve actually really started to see a change where it’s accepted, to let people know that the last call we went on, or the sixth call we went on, or the 60 calls we went on, they bother us,” Ruggles said.
Nationally in 2017, 103 firefighters and 140 police officers died by suicide compared to 93 firefighters and 129 officers who died in the line of duty.
“It’s scary. This is one of those things that we have to take action on, we can control,” Ruggles said.
“What have you understand, there’s been a long-standing tradition of people doing this work and having to suck it up,” said Beth Jacobs, a licensed mental health clinician.
In other words, they are keeping their problems to themselves. With a shifting mindset of keeping our first responders protected, that motto is no longer accepted.
When Burlington first responders need help, someone they might call, for example, is Beth Jacobs, a licensed mental health clinician. In Burlington, officials say they are the only department in the state to have a licensed clinician on their staff.
“We are trying to break down the stigma associated with mental health counseling altogether, so that these people can do the work they are trained to do and they are called to do, to protect us,” Jacobs said.
A survey conducted by the International Association of Fire Fighters found shocking numbers. They found nationwide 19 percent have had thoughts of suicide, 27 percent have struggled with substance abuse, 59 percent have experienced family and relationship problems, and 65 percent are haunted by memories of bad calls.
“We need to let firefighters– the old firefighters and the new firefighters and the ones in between– and let them know it’s OK to have these emotions. It’s OK to have these feelings and we want you to get them out of your system,” Ruggles said.
He says there are so many things firefighters do that’s out of their control and mental health is something they can control.
If you or someone you know is a first responder struggling, there is a special hotline you can call: 1-888-731-3473.
There is also the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline anyone can call: 1-800-273-8255.
Next week, we conclude this series by looking into the peer support team that has been created to help firefighters and first responders who are struggling.