Mental Health and Firefighters: A Local Look

Fort Worth firefighter walks through a blaze.
Fort Worth firefighter walks through a blaze. | Image by Glen E. Ellman/Fort Worth Fire Department

The demanding and high-pressure nature of firefighting can take a toll on firefighters’ mental health, leading to a range of issues that can impact their well-being and ability to perform their duties effectively.

The recent wildfires in Texas have spurred renewed attention on firefighters and their efforts to keep residents and their property safe. With this attention comes a greater awareness of the toll of being a firefighter, specifically the mental hazards of the job.

The Dallas Express recently spoke with Lt. Zac Shaffer, vice president of the Fort Worth Professional Firefighters Association, about mental health and firefighting. Shaffer has been a firefighter for over 17 years.

Firefighters face numerous challenges in their line of work, including exposure to traumatic events that can result in post-traumatic stress disorder, explained Shaffer. They also experience cumulative stress overload, which is a combination of everyday stressors and the added layer of extreme stress that comes with the job.

When speaking about the high-intensity stress of being a firefighter, Shaffer said, “You have to put any awe or terror behind you while being expected to produce the best possible outcome for the people. After the fact, [firefighters] tend to pack it away, and sometimes this manifests in unhealthy ways.”

The Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance (FBHA) found that 49.8% of firefighters admitted to feeling emotionally detached and isolated, with 57.6% struggling with the effects of moral injury. Additionally, from 2014-2020, FBHA discovered that more firefighters died by suicide than in the line of duty.

“Moral injury is the damage done to one’s conscience or moral compass when that person perpetrates, witnesses, or fails to prevent acts that transgress one’s own moral beliefs, values, or ethical codes of conduct,” according to the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance White Paper Series, Number 1.

The firefighters are city employees, however, they receive health insurance separate from the city through their labor union, allowing for more flexibility in services as needed for the firefighters, including mental health.

“The city still provides our employee assistance program, which is tremendously helpful,” said Shaffer. “We have a dual role: We have a chaplain for the fire department who helps with placement, and he and I work very closely together. Our chaplain, Cliff Weaver, does a fantastic job of caring for [FBHA] members.”

When asked what he believes was one of the biggest mental health struggles firefighters face, whether it be substance abuse, depression, or PTSD, Shaffer said, “My experience is probably all three… there are a lot of chicken-and-egg scenarios.”

“I think we are entering a space where mental health has become more common among the young people that we’re hiring now, and going to see a counselor or a psychologist is part of their vernacular and lives,” explained Shaffer. “Whereas … our older population was taught to suck it up and eat it… that there is something wrong with you if it affects you.”

Shaffer said he believes that much progress has been made in addressing mental health for firefighters.

“By being good examples, offering services, and normalizing these conversations, we’re able to overcome some of our bravado and history of just taking it,” said Shaffer.

On the subject of being a good example, Shaffer noted that personal relationships between firefighters are important.

“We have a long track record of taking care of each other as brothers and sisters,” said Shaffer.

However, he said that sometimes firefighters are afraid to ask for help because they are concerned about what might happen.

“People are afraid to admit to their employer that they’re having a hard time because they might be punished,” said Shaffer. “People fear being labeled because they are seeing a counselor. We can remove some of that stigma by being open and building trust over time.”

Sometimes, saying things like, “Hey, listen, we have dozens of people going to counseling, and nobody is being put off the truck or thinking they’re incompetent,” said Shaffer, who himself sees a counselor.

“It helps me get my focus back on regular life. I think it is really difficult, for me and for a lot of people, to transition from 24 hours on the fire truck of excitement, adrenaline, and problem-solving… and counseling helps me integrate back into my regular life for my days off,” he said.

Many firefighters see themselves “as problem-solvers, not someone who has a problem,” said Shaffer. “Sometimes we forget to take care of ourselves.”

“Long-term hypervigilance is a real problem for firefighters. We’re used to assessing every situation for safety. You start to get a little cagey when you realize something is unsafe for my kid, my wife, or the soccer team,” said Shaffer. “Not everything has to be addressed like it is an emergency, but we have a hard time as a population clicking out of that problem-solving mode — that taking care of everybody mode.”

In closing, Shaffer reiterated the importance of prioritizing mental health as much as physical health: “To keep people happy and productive, we have to address them holistically, their body and their mind.”

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