Spokane firefighters struggle with mental, emotional health

Local firefighters are opening up to a side that we never get to see: the struggle with mental health and post-traumatic stress disorder. They say they are working on steps to combat the problem.

Freeman High School made national headlines in Spokane County back in September 2017. Four students were shot and one of them was killed. It hit too close to home, even for firefighters.

"Some of our state troopers, they have kids that go to school here. That's a lot to take from a first responders perspective," said Spokane Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer at the time of the shooting.

It's not just Freeman. There are a number of traumatic events, as many as two a day, according to the chief. In bigger cities, that rate of horrific calls is even more frequent. Taken together, the country is now facing a first responder crisis: legions of firefighters and EMTs themselves in need of rescue. The International Association of Fire Fighters partnered with media outlets around the country and sent anonymous surveys to firefighters. They received 7,000 responses.

Almost all surveyed: 95 percent say they experience critical stress on the job and three quarters of them say it leaves them with unresolved issues.

71 percent say they have trouble sleeping and 65 percent say they are constantly haunted by memories of bad calls.

"For me personally, children are my biggest - probably - issue, where you might have a child that has had a horrific incident or accident and/or trauma," said Mike Bacon, a Spokane firefighter and Vice President of the Washington State Council of Fire Fighters.

"It impacts us differently. It's a lot of times, an accumulation of smaller issues that just happen over and over and over throughout a career," said Randy Marler, a Spokane firefighter and President of the Spokane Firefighters Union.

Mike Bacon, Randy Marler, and Cal Lindsay sat down with KHQ, opening up to an internal struggle that many firefighters deal with.

Bacon, Marler, and Lindsay have worked for years as firefighters, helping their community. "The public, they call 911 typically on their worst day of their life, and firefighters have to be at their very best when they respond," said Bacon.

What a firefighter can see on the job can be emotionally exhausting.

"It's in our nature to be the ones that are doing the helping and it's not in our nature to ask for help," said Marler.

However, the culture is now changing at fire stations. Behind the scenes at the Freeman High School shooting, a firefighter peer support group stepped in ready to help their own.

"We've learned that there are other ways to deal with this. Instead of keeping it all balled up inside of you and creating this culture, where it's all macho and you are not allowed to express your feelings, you are not allowed to share - we reversed that," said Schaeffer.

According to the national survey, 77 percent of firefighters think peer-to-peer support helps. "I think the real value of our peer support group here in Spokane, is that they are firefighters that have done the job, have seen the things that everyone has seen," said Bacon.

"We are finding that there is more value to that than having a clinical psychologist coming in from the outside and try to understand our perspective in a snapshot," said Cal Lindsay, a Spokane firefighter and a Peer Support Member in charge.

Lindsay says his peer support group is working to make it a policy to meet with fire stations regularly. When new firefighters join the department, PTSD awareness is now a mandatory part of orientation.

The push to help firefighters with PTSD is happening right now. Bacon says the Washington State of Fire Fighters introduced a bill in Olympia to the state. It would allow firefighters to have industrial insurance coverage for post-traumatic stress disorder. The bill has already passed the senate and the house.

Bacon says that the bill is expected to be signed by the governor on March 23rd.

If you want to take a look at the survey firefighters were given, click here.

(story: Andrea Olson, KHQ Local News Producer/Reporter; photo: KHQ.com)

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