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Longer fire season taking mental toll on first responders

“It's okay not to be okay. It isn't okay not to reach out"
Challenging but rewarding: First responders share mental health journeys
Posted at 9:27 PM, May 19, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-19 23:28:27-04

BOULDER, Colo. — Emergency response jobs have never been easy. However, over the past couple of years, the challenges of the field have increased for a number of reasons.

One of the reasons is that wildfire season has become a problem all year long in Colorado.

“You have to be ready year-round. So I think it definitely just adds a unique element to how we go about our jobs," said Lt. Tyler Capron of the Boulder Fire-Rescue Department. “Everything that we do, we adapt. And so I think we get used to it. But you know, there's definitely an added pressure whenever you have to be ready for something at all times.”

Capron has been with the Boulder Fire-Rescue Department for 12 years, and says the culture surrounding firefighter mental health has changed during his time as a first responder.

“From early when I came on, it was not as easy to talk about those things, to now where we we set time aside to talk to our new recruits coming on to say that, "Hey, it's okay to reach out. And it's okay not to be okay,"" he said. “It's not just reaching out to finally learn about what's available, but how can we get you to help and in the best way possible.”

Capron is one of the leads of the peer support team for the Boulder Fire-Rescue Department. He says the group ensures firefighters have access to mental health resources and coping mechanisms, allowing them to have healthy relationships both at work and home. It also gives firefighters a way to check in with one another.

“We're fortunate we get to do some quarterly training that kind of keep it on the forefront of people's minds. Because you might be in a good spot now, but maybe two months down the road, you're not," Capron explained.

For Boulder first responders, the Marshall Fire is a day that will always stick with them. Rob Schimoler was working as a dispatcher when the fire started.

“You have people calling concerned about their homes, or maybe they're at home and wondering where they should go, what they should do. And I can't give them any more specific instructions other than if you see flames or you feel your life is at risk, you need to leave," Schimoler recalled.

When asked how to describe the work that day, he said it was frantic, grueling, and unrelenting.

“I try not to hang on to these things. I can say that when I got home that night, I was thinking of a few calls that I took," Schimoler said.

Responder Strong was founded in 2016 to work across emergency response branch boundaries to improve mental health supports for first responders and their families. In 2020, Responder Strong became part of the All Clear Foundation, serving as their mental health initiative.

“All Clear Foundation has a broader mission of improving the longevity and well-being of emergency responders, including frontline healthcare workers and their family members. So we prioritize mental and emotional well-being. But, we also address cardiac and metabolic well-being, relational and social, financial and spiritual, all the aspects of wellness that can be challenged by the job," said Rhonda Kelly, founder of Responder Strong and executive director of the All Clear Foundation.

Kelly says there are a variety of challenges experienced by first responders, and she contextualizes them as stress injuries.

“Arguably, empathy and compassion are two of the greatest strengths that we bring to the job. But those are pathways for injury," said Kelly. “Stress injuries can result when our coping mechanisms are overwhelmed, when we are taught as we are in the emergency response professions, to put our needs second and to put the needs of others ahead of our own."

Kelly says typically, the accumulation of smaller traumas over the course of a career impacts first responders. She says self-care practices can increase one's capacity to deal with minimizing exposure to such trauma.

“We're frequently asked by responders, what is the best resiliency practice? And the answer is easy. It's the one that you'll do. It's the one that you enjoy. It's the one that you make a habit or pattern in your life," Kelly said.

According to data compiled by the All Clear Foundation, emergency first responders are five times more likely to be affected by PTSD than an average citizen. The foundation also cited a survey where four out of five dispatcher respondents reported at least moderate secondary trauma symptoms.

When EMS personnel describe their organizational culture as supportive, rates of suicide contemplation decrease by half and suicide attempts decreased by two-thirds, according to the All Clear Foundation.

If you or someone you know is struggling, text “BADGE” to 741741.