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Fire Department Takes on Mental Health After Devastating Blaze

The Santa Rosa Fire Department battled one of the most devastating natural disasters in California history and is now working to combat and prevent the mental health injuries that result from such trauma.

Few homes are under construction in a Fountain Grove subdivision in the aftermath and rebuilding of the Tubbs fire in Santa Rosa, Calif., on October 10, 2018. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
Travers Collins, Santa Rosa, Calif., battalion chief, has an analogy for the toll firefighting takes during a firefighter’s career.

He said each firefighter starts his career wearing an empty backpack, which will eventually fill with potentially harmful experiences that could lead to mental health problems. The firefighter goes on a call where a child dies. That’s about a baseball-sized rock that goes into that backpack. Then they go on a call where a grandmother died of a heart attack. It reminds them of their own grandmother — a marble-sized rock goes into the backpack. Then a major fire, maybe like the Tubbs Fire, hits and the community is devastated and maybe they lost their house. The backpack is getting heavier.

“After a 30-year career, there are about 50,000 rocks in that backpack and some will stick with you and have an adverse effect on you, your family and your mental health,” Collins said. “All those rocks get loaded into that backpack and if you don’t empty those calls the backpack gets full and the weight of it will break you.”

Last year, following the lingering effects of the 2017 Tubbs Fire, the Santa Rosa Fire Department took major steps to help its firefighters empty their mental backpacks.

The Tubbs Fire devastated the region, destroying more than 5,643 structures, half of which were in Santa Rosa, and changing lives forever. Right after the fire, Santa Rosa officials, including Collins, began hearing from first responders who had experienced similar traumatic events, including the Oklahoma City bombing and the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“The Tubbs Fire hit us pretty hard,” Collins said. “A lot of members lost their homes and a lot were in a sustained firefight for a long time. We were warned that after about a year, we’d start to see members suffering from mental health-type injuries.”

Sure enough, after about a year following the fires, members of the team began to suffer. One brave member sought psychological help from the Employee Assistance Program (EAP). The psychologist, who had never worked with first responders or military, responded to the member by saying, “You are really messed up,” Collins said.

“So we went to the city with a vision,” Collins said. “And it was that we want our firefighters to be as healthy going home from work as they were coming to work.”

They found the best EAP network and began working on not only the mental health of the firefighters but their physical health as well. “We got the Cadillac of EAP programs and that was Concern,” Collins said. “The Concern network provided us culturally competent counselors for all of our members.”

That first year after the Tubbs Fire, three members sought help. That number increased last month to 42. Although department officials know how many members are seeking help, they don’t know exactly who those people are so that the members don’t feel as if they may be singled out for whatever reason later.

It’s a slow process getting first responders to acknowledge mental health problems and ask for help because of the culture of first responders caring for others and not wanting to show vulnerability. The first few to acknowledge problems and seek help in effect opened the doors for others.

“We talk openly about it from the top down and from the bottom up, so as chief officers we have talks with our crews and we’re not ashamed to talk about it,” Collins said. “We’re starting to teach this now in the academy when we get new firefighters in.”

Along with getting psychological and medical help for the mental aspects of the job, the firefighters can get physical therapy after a long shift as well, where they can get aches and pains worked on. “The cool thing that happens when we do that is that when people are on a table getting their back or shoulder worked, on they start opening up about mental issues,” Collins said. The physical therapist can then direct them to the proper doctor within the EAP.

Collins said they are taking things slowly, not wanting to overpromise membership, but that the program is helping.

“The proof is in the pudding,” he said. “We’ve had such an uptick of people getting help. Unfortunately, between the fires and now we’ve lost three firefighters to behavioral health injuries. I wish we could have done this sooner.”