SAN DIEGO COUNTY, California — Firefighters are often referred to as heroes on the frontlines. Those working in the fire service head into unimaginable situations on a mission to help others.
It’s a job that is rewarding but one that can also take a toll.
“We are people too, we are husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, fathers and mothers and we struggle as well,” said Rincon Fire Chief Ed Hadfield.
With raging wildfires, COVID-19 and civil unrest putting additional strain on our first responders, there is new concern about the mental wellness of our firefighters. The wildfires require them to often be away from their families for 2 – 3 weeks at a time where they are subjected to hazardous work conditions, toxic environments (air quality) and disruptive sleep patterns.
The fire service industry is seeing an uptick in the number of personnel with substance use disorders and suicidal behavior.
According to Chief Hadfield, the number of firefighters who die by suicide exceeds the number in law enforcement, yet the number in their ranks is greatly smaller than that of law enforcement.
While they are trained to deal with danger and work long shifts, often times the hardest part is admitting when they are struggling.
“There is an expectation that they could do anything they could overcome anything it’s a sign of weakness to ask for help,” said Hadfield.
The Rincon fire agency has been taking a whole system approach to this issue by closely monitoring it’s personnel’s physical and mental health and providing better access to resources according to the fire chief.
Chief Hadfield asserts that strong leadership and an openness to talk about suicide in fire services is needed to reduce the stigma of mental health so that firefighters can get the help they need. Suicide doesn’t have to be the answer.
By speaking out, he is hoping to spark a dialog and extinguish the stigma that’s kept too many quiet.
“You’re not alone and reaching out for that help is probably one of the strongest things you can do,” Hadfield said.
September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month.
Anyone could be struggling with suicide. If you or someone you know is having a hard time visit the national suicide prevention lifeline page or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for free and confidential support.