When Jeff Grote’s father was part of the Kansas City Fire Department, he remembers him never wanting to talk much about the difficult situations he encountered during his career.
“The old adage I was taught is ‘Toughen up,'” said Grote, who became firefighter himself in Kansas City and is now chief of the Central Jackson County Fire Protection District in Blue Springs and Grain Valley. “That’s easy to say but not easy to do. You can’t just turn your mind off some things.”
Over the past few years, Grote’s department, Independence firefighters and other agencies in the area have tried to put more focus on the mental health of firefighters and other first responders. Such efforts include a peer support program—a firefighter willing and able to simply talk with another who might be exhibiting signs of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder or other issues affecting them.
An April study by the Ruderman Family Foundation showed firefighters and police officers were more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty in 2017—103 firefighter suicides and 140 police suicides reported compared with 93 and 129 line-of-duty deaths. Both represent higher suicide rates than the general population. In addition, the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance has estimated that only about 40 percent of firefighter suicides get reported.
Eddie Saffell, CJC assistant chief, and Mike Peacock, one of six peer support team members with International Association of Fire Fighters Local 781 in Independence, stress that their department’s efforts are more a proactive than reactive attempt, not just to ward off suicide but to improve mental health overall.
But as Independence Fire Captain Kirk Stobart said, knowing Kansas City has lost a few members to suicide in recent years, “Even if it’s not here, it’s close to here.”
“We all get the trade magazines, and some of us go to conferences,” Saffell said. “We know there’s more deaths from mental health than line-of-duty deaths.”
The IAFF has been pushing peer support programs for several years, Stobart said. Here’s how it works:
A fire union (usually Local 42 in Kansas City, Peacock said) will sponsor an instructor from IAFF to teach a few classes and train firefighters how to be an effective peer counselor. Those peer team members are then available to talk with a colleague in need, or a firefighter from another department if talking to a stranger is more comfortable.
“Kansas City, Lee’s Summit, CJC, almost every department around here has at least four guys (trained)—police too,” Peacock said.
“It’s really in its infancy,” he said of Independence’s program, in its third year. “We’ve used it a few times here, and who knows how many might have needed it beforehand.
“Anytime, day or night, there’s somebody able and willing to talk. We’re trying to make sure there’s no stigma attached to it.”
The symptoms could involve drug or alcohol abuse, or perhaps issues at home are stressing a firefighter, Peacock said, and being one of many firefighters that are prior military, they know there are triggers for PTSD that they might not have even encountered yet.
For especially tough cases, the IAFF has a recovery center in Maryland. More locally, it can be harder to find a treatment place that might have a specialist in dealing with first responders, “To talk to somebody who knows the language,” as Independence Fire Chief Doug Short puts it, and Peacock said they’re always seeking out more possible professionals they can call if need be.
Also, Peacock and Short point out, the peer program can be a liaison with management, as well. One firefighter could tell the chief that somebody’s having some problems and needs to step back a little bit.
“In any career field, it’s always harder going to your employer and saying, ‘I need help,'” Short said. “That’s why it’s important to have the peer network. We’re trying to find that way to get guys help.”
Saffell and Stobart said talking now can also help those nearing retirement—those who might suddenly have more thinking time on their hands but not the immediate camaraderie.
“When they’re retiring out, they’ve spent one-third of their life here, it affects you emotionally,” Stobart said.
“We like to consider it part of the overall health,” Grote said, meaning that mental health should receive emphasis similar to physical health for a firefighter.
“We don’t have all the answers,” he said. “But we can’t just sit back and not talk about it.”