Responding to fires, medical emergencies and serious auto accidents can leave a lasting impression on firefighters, and Forsyth County officials are taking steps to reduce the mental weight that comes with responding to those emergency calls.
Recently, Forsyth County Commissioners approved an agreement with One Source Counseling EAS, LLC for counseling services for firefighters to be added to an existing employee assistance program.
Forsyth County Fire Chief Barry Head said while the existing program had provided counseling services — along with other services such as weight-loss, smoking cessation and financial advice — the new service had a laser focus on issues facing first responders.
“This program is tailored to public safety and post-traumatic stress on those employees,” he said. “It’s not replacing the other system, it’s in addition to. We think that this is leaps and bounds above what we were doing before, and we think it’s going to be a very successful program.”
Head said the department realized there was more to be done above the department’s current services after officials read Forsyth County News’ series “The Weight of Responding,” which spoke with a number of current and former firefighters about their experience and their struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms.
“After the series that Forsyth County News did, it opened our eyes to the fact that we probably should be doing a little more for our employees, and a couple of comments those employees or former employees made really kind of shook us to the core,” Head said. “One of those was that they didn’t feel like the currents service that we provide is quite adequate, that’s what this corrects.”
The program through One Source will provide an intake telephone line to receive referrals for local counselors or more information that will be available all hours of the day, maintain a network of counseling services, conduct an orientation for employees of the department, provide information and quarterly reports, provide a 12-member peer support team of FCFD firefighters and offer services through family members.
“Our responsibility to them goes far beyond just making sure they are adequately trained and adequately equipped to do their job,” Head said. “It’s making sure that they have the resources available to them in times like this.”
One difficulty in coming up with programs for firefighters is that before the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, firefighters didn’t often speak about PTSD issues nor were they effects studied by researchers.
“Historically, there’s been very few studies done that relate post-traumatic stress to public safety employees,” Head said. “There’s just not a lot of information out there until you get to 9/11. Once 9/11 occurred, it kind of started hitting the forefront and becoming a mainstream topic of conversation, but even still, it didn’t really get the attention it deserved.”
Another issue is the traditional image and job duties of firefighters, which Head said has increased from just fighting fires to responding to “medical emergencies, traumatic events, the violent death, the homicides and the like.”
In a career where mental and physical toughness is a requirement, he said talking about struggles doesn’t always come easy.
“The first thing that we have to do is break down that stigma associated with it and make sure that our employees know that it’s a naturally occurring thing, it’s a natural way of dealing with stress and that it’s OK,” Head said. “It’s a hard topic to talk about when you’re dealing with employees that develop their careers around bravery. It’s a hard pill to swallow, so we’ve got to get over that barrier and move forward and make sure they understand the support is there for them.”
The program is expected to go into effect in early July, and the item from commissioners approved $16,400 in funding for the service.
Head was quick to thank the board of commissioners and other county officials for taking steps to improve services for firefighters.
“We’re very fortunate to work for an organization that puts its public safety personnel at the forefront,” Head said. “The administration downtown and the elected officials jumped on this with both feet and were very supportive of it, so we’re just waiting to get the meeting with them in the next few days and kick it off.”