Fire chief launches mental health initiative to combat PTSD
Panama City Fire Department Assistant Fire Chief Gary Swearingen is launching a mental health initiative after learning how many firefighters die by suicide
By Katie Landeck
The News Herald
PANAMA CITY, Fla. — It was just before Christmas, when Battalion Chief Chris Burger responded to a call of an unresponsive infant.
With the sort of muscle memory training only thousands of hours of training can build, he went to the home and did his job. He was the helper -- cool under pressure, someone you can lean on -- that everyone expects a firefighter to be.
But afterwards, it weighed on him. He thought of his daughter. The horror of what it would be like to spend Christmas without her.
"It weighs heavy on you," he said. "Overtime, you are repeatedly exposed to things you really shouldn't be looking at ... but at the end of the day, you're the same as everyone else."
Burger couldn't shake it off, so he did something that would have been unprecedented when he first started fighting fires in the 90s: He called someone to talk about it, the critical incident stress management (CISM) team in Bay County.
"It's an important paradigm shift," said Assistant Fire Chief of the Panama City Fire Department Gary Swearingen, who is launching a mental health initiative. "There's been the personification that firefighters have to be the tough guy. There's no doubt there are things about the job that it helps to be hard around the edges for, but that's not to say you can't have a weak moment, and it's not having a weak moment. It's being real."
"Suck it up, buttercup"
Studies by the International Association of Firefighter (IAFF) suggested the 20 percent suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from what they see on the job everyday. Even for those who don't have PTSD going to fires, car accidents and emergencies day after day can be wearing.
Swearingen has seen the wear and tear over the years, but he didn't fully understand the significance of it until he learned the number of firefighters that died from line of duty causes in 2016 compared to suicides.
"There were 87 firefighters that died in the line of duty ... but that same years 139 firefighters killed themselves," said Swearingen. "That number is what changed me at that conference, that we have to take this more seriously."
But taking it more seriously is a major change in perspective for veteran first responders. In the 70s, 80s and 90s, the unofficial mantra was to "suck it up, buttercup," as Swearingen and Burger recall from training. Out of a 750 page training book, Burger said only two paragraphs had to do with mental health.
Being able to deal with horrible things -- removing a teenager's lifeless body from a bad car wreck while the parents watch, responding to call of a friend's kid in medical trouble, not being able to stop a house from burning down by the time you get there -- was thought of as part of the job. Not being able to handle it, seemed as if it could threaten your career.
"I used to think you could tough through some of this stuff, and I've probably even given that advice to guys in the past," Swearingen said. "You know, 'toughen up buttercup,' but these are normal people dealing with abnormal situations."
Internalizing, he said, ultimately caused guys to burn out. Some, Swearingen said, would simply quit. By others, Burger said, have dealt with marital problems, addiction issues and even suicide.
"There was one guy I knew from back when I was volunteering, he killed himself. Everything has seemed fine ... he could light up a room and make everyone smile," Burger said. "I don't want to see the sort of thing continue. It's preventable."
Critical Incident Stress Management
Five years ago, Captain Terry Parris with the Panama City Beach Fire Department was tired of watching good people burn out.
"I decided to do something to try to prevent it," he said.
The something was to get a group together to attend a training on critical incident stress management, where the idea was to create a safe space for first responders -- firefighters, EMTs, police and dispatch as well as their families -- to talk to someone who would get what they were going through -- i.e. another first responder -- without fear of it hurting their career.
"Our first couple of years, it was hard. People were a little reluctant," Parris said. "They would ask us what we were doing or if it was really anonymous. We had to build that trust."
Parris, along with Bay County EMS Captain Danny Page and BCSO Lt. Billy Byrd, created a system where the CISM team had someone available to talk 24/7, in person or on the phone, one-on-one or to a group.
Since they started, the first responder community has changed dramatically.
Last year, they recorded 250 people used their services, which Parris considers a huge accomplishment.
And now as part of the Panama City fire department's change is perspective, they are drafting policies to make it mandatory for employees to talk to a CISM volunteer after certain types of traumatic incidents, just to check in.
Parris, Swearingen and Burger all said the changes seem to be reaching the public as well, pointing to legislation passed this year and championed by Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, of Bay County, to make disability available to first responders with PTSD.
"It's our turn to show up for them," Patronis said in a statement after the bill passed.
This new attitude, Swearingen said, is a better one.
"I'm thinking about the new guy that started yesterday," Swearingen said. "I want this to be their normal, to look at this that it's okay to not be okay. That's one of the sayings, so that the know to get help and the look for help whenever it's needed. Early."
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