Today, we will look at another health and safety issue that is of great concern to public safety personnel. The description of “fit for duty” for first responders has historically only accounted for good physical health for the duties related to one’s job. But behavioral health is equally important for emergency responders to be able to function and perform their jobs safely.

It is important to understand that emergency responders are exposed to many different types of hazards inherent in the nature of their jobs. Examples include exposure (direct or indirect) to death, grief, injury, pain, or loss as well as direct exposure to threats to personal safety, long hours of work, frequent shifts and longer shift hours, poor sleep, physical hardships, and other negative experiences.

The nature of the work of firefighters, including repeated exposure to painful and provocative experiences and erratic sleep schedules, can pose significant risk to firefighters’ mental health). To add to that risk, firefighters face many barriers to seeking help, including the stigma and costs, and/or availability to treatment. Depression, Stress and Post Traumatic Disorder, Substance Abuse, and Suicide/Suicide Ideation are commonly reported among firefighters. According to some statistics reported nationally in the media more firefighters died by suicide than were killed in the line of duty. Also a survey of 7000 North American firefighters reported revealed 27% have struggled with substance abuse.

Virginia mandates that firefighters receive mental health awareness training. There is also a section addressing emergency medical services providers which can be found in The Code of Virginia §32.1-111.5:1 and mirrors the section below. The legislation in Virginia reads as follows:

9.1-203.1. Firefighter mental health awareness training.

A. Each fire department as defined in § 27-6.01 shall develop curricula for mental health awareness training for its personnel, which shall include training regarding the following:

1. Understanding signs and symptoms of cumulative stress, depression, anxiety, exposure to acute and chronic trauma, compulsive behaviors, and addiction

2. Combating and overcoming stigmas;

3. Responding appropriately to aggressive behaviors such as domestic violence and harassment; and

4. Accessing available mental health treatment and resources.

B. Any fire department may develop the mental health awareness training curricula in conjunction with other fire departments or firefighter stakeholder groups or may use any training program, developed by any entity, that satisfies the criteria set forth in subsection A.

C. Firefighters who receive mental health awareness training in accordance with this section shall receive appropriate continuing education credits from the Department of Fire Programs and the Virginia Fire Services Board.

There are a number of training programs available that will meet the intent of this legislation and more importantly start to address how firefighters can take care of themselves, recognize stress signs and symptoms of themselves and their colleagues. We must make sure that “taking care of our own” addresses these important aspects of behavioral health. We will post some resources and training programs that are available to meet these needs. There will be several courses offered at The First Responder Virginia 2019 Convention being held in Hampton, Virginia on August 6-10, 2019. Information can be found on the registration page at VA First Responder 2019 Convention Registration.

Other Mental Health Resources on the Web: