Conn. firefighters help each other cope after fire that killed child

Norwalk's internal peer support team leader called a mental health nonprofit, which sent two therapists who worked with those who battled the blaze

Richard Chumney
The Hour

NORWALK, Conn. — When firefighters responded to a deadly Nelson Avenue house blaze last month, fire department officials knew they needed to ensure their crews had access to mental health care when they returned to the station.

The early-morning blaze killed a 7-year-old girl, injured her parents and left the two-story home charred and in ruins.

The Nelson Avenue blaze that killed a 7-year-old girl, injured her parents and left the two-story home in ruins took its toll on firefighters who responded last month.
The Nelson Avenue blaze that killed a 7-year-old girl, injured her parents and left the two-story home in ruins took its toll on firefighters who responded last month. (Photo/Norwalk Fire Department)

Like most deadly incidents, the fire also inflicted a powerful emotional toll on the firefighters and the medical personnel who responded to the tragic scene, according to firefighter Richard Ryan.

"There's long-lasting repercussions to a lot of the calls that we go to and they might not start right away," said Ryan, who helps lead the department's internal peer support team. "Things build over time and the more you keep it in, the worse it's going to get."

When Ryan was notified of the fire, he reached out to the Fairfield County Trauma Response Team, a nonprofit comprised of local mental health workers who have experience working with first responders.

Within a few hours, the response team sent two therapists to speak with those who battled the blaze. Ryan said the incident debriefings are aimed at helping firefighters process their emotions after a stressful incident.

"They just talked," Ryan said. "If they didn't want to talk, they didn't have to talk. If they didn't want to go, they didn't have to go. But it's a tool we use for clearing our heads and making sure everybody is in the right spot."

Ryan also made sure each firefighter knew how to contact the department's peer support team, a 14-member group made up of Norwalk firefighters.

The group members are tasked with helping their colleagues talk through a wide range of issues, from mental health concerns and anxiety over stress to substance abuse issues and marriage problems.

"As firefighters, we talk about incidents, we talk about stuff we've been through and how we've dealt with it," Ryan said.



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The team was formed by Capt. Timothy Reardon in 2015 in response to a growing national trend of suicides among firefighters and other first responders, Ryan said.

A study by the Ruderman Family Foundation found that first responders are now more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty. In 2017, for example, 93 firefighters died on the job, while 103 died by suicide.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, first responders may be at greater risk for suicide because of their stressful work environments and due to stigmas around mental health problems in their profession.

"Even during routine shifts, first responders can experience stress due to the uncertainty in each situation. During emergencies, disasters, pandemics, and other crises, stress among first responders can be magnified," CDC officials wrote last fall.

Ryan, who helps manage the group, joined the peer support team two years ago. He said he was drawn to the work because he enjoys assisting others, but also because similar programs have personally benefited him in the past.

"When you get help, it's like a huge weight is lifted off your shoulders and you begin thinking more clearly," he said.

Ryan said in recent years virtually the entire department, including its leadership, have embraced the peer support group, calling it a cultural shift. He said the well-attended debriefings after the Nelson Avenue fire are evidence firefighters find value in mental health programs.

In a recent Norwalk Fire Commission meeting, Mayor Harry Rilling expressed a similar sentiment.

"Firefighters and police officers are reluctant to ask for help," Rilling said. "But I think that we've taken away that fear, because they recognize that they can talk and they can express themselves and it's not going to be held as a negative."

Ryan said he hopes to strengthen the team in the future by collaborating with first responders in nearby towns and cities. He also wants to continue to offer training to group members so they are better equipped to respond to firefighters seeking help.

"As long as firefighters and first responders are committing suicide, our job is never going to be complete," Ryan said. "But as long as they know that we're here for them, then it's a step in the right direction."


(c)2022 The Hour (Norwalk, Conn.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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