A blood pumping, adrenaline rushing sound when the siren alarms, and an emergency is announced.
“All the different types of calls we could possibly respond to, you got to be ready for,” said Joe Mahacek, a firefighter with the Omaha Fire Department.
Omaha Fire Cpt. Justin Cooley said there’s a driving factor that moves firefighters to suit up.
“We take this job because we are caring, compassionate. We want to help people,” Cooley said.
But there’s an unshakeable feeling that lasts beyond the 911 call.
“We’re so used to helping people that a lot of times we don’t help ourselves,” Cooley said.
In many cases Mahacek said it leads to a fire slowly burning within, each rescue as a long-time first responder leaves behind a mark in his memory.
“There’s a place in town where we had to pull somebody out of a car who was deceased in a car accident. And after they got done with their investigation, we had to remove them from the car and forever in my life, I will remember that person,” he said.
But in 2019, a tragedy hit close to home, making Cooley realize there are other men and women in red with their own mental health issues.
“A guy that I got hired with, I was at the same station with — he was my age — committed suicide,” Cooley said.
The second firefighter in Omaha to take their own life in five years.
“Nobody had any idea. So being so close to that it was embarrassing to go around and say that was one of my best friends because I felt like his being one of his best friends, I should have known more, and I should have been there more for him,” Cooley said.
An outcry Cooley answered immediately, going to every station, on each shift breaking down the stigma associated with mental health.
“Recognize that it’s OK to not be OK and know that we have normal reactions to abnormal things,” he said.
Cooley teamed up with the First Responders Foundation, dedicating counselors and therapists who are trained to listen and act.
“They’re really strategic about finding partners in the community that are going to help their firefighter to be the best they can be, whether that be mentally, emotionally, physically or spiritually,” said Jason Workman, director of behavioral health with the First Responders Foundation.
These mental health professionals make up the network known as ‘We Care,’ working with schedules, sleep patterns and even costs, for first responders and their families.
“Your first visit’s free, so we don’t want to discourage people,” Cooley said.
A newly introduced program, benefiting dozens already.
“With my anxiety, it’s something that kind of comes and goes. And because of the steps that I’ve learned, when I can kind of feel it coming on, I’ve got some things that I can do to help relax that,” Mahacek said.
Creating a ripple effect among other firefighters while unlocking the door to healing, through talking.
“Changes the whole culture a little bit at the time. It changes it with maybe their station and then the rig,” said Cooley.
Help is always available. Calling 988 connects you with the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline or you can go online to their website.