Five Questions on Department Mental Health Every Fire Chief Should Review


by Peggy Sweeney
The Sweeney Alliance

Peggy Cox black 200X270Being a fire chief is never an easy job. 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.

In 1997, I wrote the Grieving Behind the Badge training program because I realized that mental and emotional health were not being addressed by a vast majority of fire departments. Unfortunately, the story remains the same today for many departments in North America. We continue to focus on the statistical number gathering rather than addressing the needs of firefighters. In other words, we take count of those who suffer from post traumatic stress (PTS) or have died by suicide rather than reviewing and implementing noteworthy programs that provide lifesaving information on depression, PTS, and suicide prevention/intervention.

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. 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, have you offered a program and 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?

In this situation, I personally consider not honoring this firefighter’s years of service and ignoring the grieving family to be an unconscionable act!

Where do you stand on these issues? Remember, some chiefs suffer from 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. Firefighters and other emergency responders and public safety professionals 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.

One last question… Does your voice offer a positive change for the fire service?

Copyright Peggy Sweeney. All rights reserved.

About the Author: Peggy Sweeney is a mortician (retired), bereavement educator and president of the Sweeney Alliance. She has developed and taught countless workshops for coping with grief and trauma including the Grieving Behind the Badge program for emergency response professionals. She has written numerous award-winning articles and was a staff writer for the Los Angeles Fire Fighter newspaper. Peggy is a former EMT-B and member of the Comfort (TX) Volunteer Fire Department. She received the 2014 Firefighter of the Year Award from her department. Contact Peggy at peggy@sweeneyalliance.org.

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