Firefighters work 24-hour shifts several days a week. They miss birthdays, holidays and important family events. Those long days are spent answering calls for help – where seconds can mean the difference between life and death. Sometimes, they see the unimaginable and they are expected to perform their duties perfectly and professionally – staying strong during intense moments.
“Nobody teaches you how to deal with those sights, sounds, and smells,” said Palm Coast Fire Department Driver Engineer Chris Cottle, who’s served as the department’s Chaplain since last year. Cottle’s role is to provide spiritual guidance and mental health wellness for fire department personnel following traumatic service calls and personal matters.
Over the course of a firefighter’s career, they can develop invisible wounds from the psychological effects of responding to incidents involving the death and critical injury, house fires, car crashes or children’s illnesses. These experiences challenge the core of a firefighter and could contribute to mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts.
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. The rates among first responders are heightened, as they face a greater risk for depression, PTSD and suicide compared to the general population. Studies have also found there were barriers for first responders in accessing help for mental health including shame and stigma.
In Palm Coast, the fire department is being proactive in taking steps to raise awareness to the effects of PTSD by participating in its first department-wide mental health training. Cottle and PCFD Peer Support Team Leader Eric Robinson brought expertise from the Florida State Fire College back to Palm Coast to share with local first responders.
“It is okay to not be okay,” Robinson said recently to a group of firefighters during a training event. He often meets with crews after traumatic incidents and works with fellow firefighters to remove that stigma.
“It’s very important that our firefighters understand that they are not alone when they experience the negative effects after responding to critical calls,” Robinson said. “This training was important because it was designed to bring everyone back to the realization that we are humans and the emotions we experience are normal reactions to abnormal situations.”
Last week, they hosted a four-hour class for three days to 57 first responders from Palm Coast and eight Flagler Beach Fire Department personnel that included some group exercises and presentations from both Cottle and Robinson, Palm Coast Safety Coordinator Ben Caoili, Dr. Sandra Neer of UCF Restores and Nationally Certified Counselor Dwight Bain, who has worked to help rebuild stability after national disasters like the Sandy Hook school shooting, Hurricane Katrina, the Pulse nightclub shooting and 9/11.
“This specific training is important because the firefighters need to understand how the worker’s compensation bill works so if they need to take advantage of it, they can make that decision for themselves and have the information to use it,” Cottle said. “The bill is set up with workers comp – if you sprain your ankle you go to the doctor for treatment. With mental health, first responders believe they can handle it themselves. If you break your arm, you don’t deal with it by yourself. We want them to take advantage of this resource and treat it like it needs more than handling with an ice pack. We want them to be able to understand everything so they make their own choice.”
The training is a requirement of Senate Bill 376, which was spearheaded by Florida’s Chief Financial Officer and State Fire Marshal Jimmy Patronis, and signed into law on Oct. 1, 2018 by then Gov. Rick Scott. The law requires employing agencies to provide educational training related to mental health awareness, prevention, mitigation and treatment. As part of the training, firefighters were educated on the importance of recognizing the signs of a fellow first responder in despair.
“The overall message to this training was to let our fire personnel know that we have made a strong push to remove the stigma associated with reaching out for assistance,” Robinson said. “This is evident as during the past year we have had 10 department members receive peer support training at UCF Restores and our department has afforded Chaplain Cottle and I the opportunity to attend numerous conferences on this important issue.”
“Their walk is never alone,” said Palm Coast Fire Chief Jerry Forte. “We have asked our firefighters to come here to build a career. It’s our job to return them back to their families, fit to retire.”
Since becoming chief last year, it’s been a staple of Forte’s agenda to be proactive in preserving the mind, body and soul of the firefighters through programs like the Chaplaincy, continuance of clean-cab initiatives and health scans, plus training for aspects such as that of mental health.
“The firefighters were glad we were doing something in the realm of mental health and post-traumatic stress,” Cottle said. “Everybody was appreciative. I think it went well.”
POTUS, Living proof we need free universal mental health care in the US lmao
R. P. McMurphy says
I’m happy they’re getting the support they need. But awareness is one thing, getting treated is another.
As a person with severe depression, I can attest that this area has a dearth of psychiatric and psychological resources. And I have great insurance, funds, can drive, and am not that crazy! Lol. It’s worse if you’re without means or aren’t functional. You’d be homeless.
Halifax psychiatric department is not good to put the best spin on it. They’re also quite a bit a ways away. I’ve been Baker Acted there two times when I really should not have been, so the police need to get smarter too. imho. I hear Flagler Hospital in St. Augustine is better. I know firsthand that Shands in Gainesville is excellent.
But Flagler county has the highest suicide rate in Florida. My doctor in St. Augustine says he has lots of patients that come from Palm Coast. When professionals ask me where I’m from, they don’t ask why did you travel so far. They usually grimace because they know why. The therapists I’ve seen mostly aren’t good, but I lucked out in Daytona. I used to see another good one down in New Smyrna. Tbh the quality of a therapist is very subjective and hit or miss according to personal opinion. But up north, even in the suburbs, you’d find a therapist with a PhD and a psychiatrist with an MD. Some from Ivy League schools. In this area, it’s a licensed mental health counselor (LMHC) with a master’s degree and a nurse practitioner from a local school. You’d be lucky if you got someone from University of Florida which I’ve said is good. A great therapist doesn’t necessarily need fancy degrees. He could be your neighbor or friend. But education helps and I’m glad the fire department is teaching firefighters how to look out for their brothers and sisters.
Some of the time the problem can be solved with a visit to your general practitioner where he’ll prescribe a generic anti-depressant and you’re done. You can even ween off the medications after your situational crisis is over. However many people do not respond to treatment (30% for antidepressants) or their problems are not situational, eg Alzheimer’s. For folks whose case is complicated and long standing, the choices for help are few. I hear people asking why would I stay here? Simply move to where there’s more help. It’s a good question.
jack howell says
For several years, I have been a member of the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress. I am also a victim of Post Traumatic Stress. In the civilian community, and especially within the law enforcement and fire rescue agencies throughout the nation, PTS is a real issue. Fortunately, the men and women serving as first responders are beginning to receive the help they need to handle their problems with PTS. Agency chiefs are making the changes needed to affect change and understanding of the PTS issue. It seems to me that hardly a week goes by where the media reports about a first responder taking their life.
In the military community, the issue of a service member dealing with PTS is treated somewhat differently. If you are a service member that is suffering from PTS and hold a security clearance, you are in jeopardy of losing the security clearance. If you are in a position of special trust and confidence, your security authorization will be removed and you will be assigned a different job. As a commissioned officer, you can count on your career being over. How do you prevent this from happening? What do you do? You become a workaholic and do a lot of Physical Training to compartmentalize your PTS. If you report it to a health care professional, kiss your career goodbye. Of course, you can seek outside of the military for help. But, you run a serious risk taking that course. The bottom line is you either leave the military or suck it up. None of these are good options, and I don’t the Armed Forces changing their position in the near term.
Alphonse Abonte says
Adam Schifft ,DNC, 3 mental illness in a national level.
POTUS has them beat on an International level. Maybe even Universal. You see AL none of them work for us, IMO