Five questions on department mental health every fire chief should review

CarolinaFireJournal - By Peggy Sweeney
By Peggy Sweeney
10/26/2015 -

The job of fire chief is never easy. Whether you lead a volunteer company of 10 or a career department of several thousand, your bottom line is, or should be, the physical safety and mental and emotional wellness of your men and women.


I ask each of you as leaders of your department to take a step back and candidly review your attitude about the mental and emotional wellness of your department:

  1. 1. Do you criticize or shun a firefighter because he or she struggles with the emotional aftereffects of traumatic calls? Do you turn a deaf ear when members of your department make fun of or bully them (also known as “peer abuse”)? The mantra “suck it up and go on” is a cliché of the past.

    “... any figure of authority or power which may use intimidation as a primary means of motivating others ... could rightfully be referred to as a bully.” —Bullying/Wikipedia
  2. Are you in tune with other struggles your firefighters may be having; such as, alcoholism or other addictive behaviors, marital problems, grief over the death of a loved one, financial worries? Is your office a “safe place” for firefighters to seek help and advice for coping with these issues?
  3. If a firefighter has been permanently injured on or off the job or has retired, do you provide a welcoming environment at your station for them to visit so that they may feel as though they are still part of the profession they love and miss? Many disabled and retired firefighters want and need the camaraderie.
  4. Do you provide printed materials and/or training programs on topics such as: addiction recovery, building healthy relationships, anger management, coping with grief, depression, post traumatic stress, suicide intervention and prevention? Do you have qualified mental health professionals available for counseling your firefighters without fear that they will be labeled as weak or unfit? If your department has suffered the line of duty or non-duty related death of a firefighter, do you offer a program and/or resources on coping with grief for your department and the grieving family?
  5. If your department has been tragically touched by the suicide of one of your own, did you, as the chief, lead your department in showing respect and appreciation for their service as a firefighter as well as comforting their loved ones? Or did you stigmatize the death and turn your back on their grieving family? I personally consider not honoring this firefighter’s years of service and ignoring the grieving family to be unconscionable!

Where do you stand on these issues? Remember, some chiefs suffer from addiction, depression, PTS, and thoughts of suicide also. Your rank does not elevate you to super human status.

I invite you to subscribe to our Grieving Behind the Badge newsletter, and promote it to your department. Each month, firefighters and other emergency responders share their stories in hopes that their words will help others. You will find valuable resources and contact information for people and organizations that help responders become better equipped to handle the day-to-day emotional traumas of their job as well as the struggles that come with being a spouse, parent, adult child or sibling. The newsletters and blog also provide information to help firefighters choose life not death.

I have one last question. Does your voice offer a positive change for the fire service?

Copyright Peggy Sweeney.
All rights reserved.

Peggy Sweeney is a mortician, bereavement educator and president of The Sweeney Alliance and co-founder of the Station House Retreat, an addiction recovery program for first responders exclusively. She has developed and taught countless workshops for coping with grief and trauma including the Grieving Behind the Badge program for emergency response professionals. Sweeney is a former member of the Comfort (Texas) Volunteer Fire. Contact her at [email protected].
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