Managing a mental health emergency: How fire chiefs can help their firefighters

Contributed by MnFIRE Mental Health Director Melinda Coscarelli, PhD, LPCC, LADC

As firefighters, you’re taught to always be prepared. Your department spends hours practicing and preparing for that moment when someone calls for help. But how do you answer the call from one of your own?

Mental health problems can come in all sizes, from a firefighter facing burnout to one who is having suicidal thoughts. With the mental demands and emotional toll of firefighting, fire service leaders must be prepared to offer support to their fellow firefighters when needed. After all, firefighters with more supportive cultures and departmental resources perceive their work environment as less stressful, which can lessen manifestations of mental health problems such as anxiety, substance abuse, insomnia and depression.

Here are a few things you can do to be better prepared.

Get trained

Fire service leaders should receive training on how to talk to their crew about mental health concerns. These situations are delicate and at times need to be handled differently than your typical calls. MnFIRE provides access to suicide prevention classes and emotional wellness deep-dive trainings. Because with proper education, you can identify the warning signs for emotional trauma and feel more comfortable having these conversations with your firefighters.

Build awareness and support

Making small changes now can help build a stronger foundation to stand on later. Put up posters around your department with messages and tips for managing different symptoms such as sleep deprivation or moodiness. Posters can be placed in prominent areas like the kitchen, or more discrete locations such as the restrooms. MnFIRE also offers educational materials on resources to help, which show MnFIRE’s free helpline for getting support 24/7.

While a few posters or brochures won’t change the fire service culture, having them visible and accessible can be helpful to someone suffering in silence and start building awareness for the support that’s always available to them.

Be proactive

Several departments have started doing regular check-ins with their crews. A good time for doing this is at roll call or shift changes. It can be as simple as asking your crew to rate their current mental status on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being mentally maxed out. If one of your firefighters is at a seven or higher, pull them aside and ask them what you can do to support them. A simple check-in adds accountability and shows the crew that you genuinely care.

It’s also helpful to develop a safety plan for your department so you know what process to follow to de-escalate any type of crisis situation.

Stay calm

If a mental health emergency does arise, stay calm. Ask the firefighter what you can do to support them through their difficult situation. Steer clear of offering advice, but rather listen and empathize.

Be attentive

Taking a class like MnFIRE’s emotional wellness training or the suicide prevention skills training we put on for our peer supporters can be very beneficial to learning warning signs for someone in distress. Non-verbal and verbal language both give clues about when a firefighter’s mental health may be starting to decline, or they may even become suicidal. It is best to recognize these signs before they escalate into a dangerous situation.

Call MnFIRE

If you don’t feel prepared, know that we are. The MnFIRE toll free number is staffed by masters-level clinicians all day, every day. From one-on-one calls to department debriefs, during the middle of a crisis or after a tough call, we are here for you. Don’t hesitate to use this free, confidential resource available to all full-time, part-time, on-call and volunteer firefighters in Minnesota. Just call 888-784-6634.

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Have you reserved your spot for the 2024 MnFORE Golf Tournament yet? Enjoy an 18-hole round of golf, cart, lunch, happy hour, plated dinner, silent auction and more on Tuesday, July 16, all to benefit Minnesota firefighter health and well-being.

Register and learn more about sponsorship opportunities at mnfireinitiative.com/mnfore/
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Have you reserved your spot for the 2024 MnFORE Golf Tournament yet? Enjoy an 18-hole round of golf, cart, lunch, happy hour, plated dinner, silent auction and more on Tuesday, July 16, all to benefit Minnesota firefighter health and well-being.

Register and learn more about sponsorship opportunities at https://mnfireinitiative.com/mnfore/

Darren from the Morton Fire Department is our latest MnFIRE training survey drawing winner for a Streamlight Survivor flashlight!

Our FREE health and wellness training is crucial to understanding mitigation and prevention strategies for cancer, cardiac and emotional trauma. Register your department for a training and start your journey to a better life as a firefighter, and you might also win a streamlight in the process! mnfireinitiative.com/training/
... See MoreSee Less

Darren from the Morton Fire Department is our latest MnFIRE training survey drawing winner for a Streamlight Survivor flashlight!

Our FREE health and wellness training is crucial to understanding mitigation and prevention strategies for cancer, cardiac and emotional trauma. Register your department for a training and start your journey to a better life as a firefighter, and you might also win a streamlight in the process! https://mnfireinitiative.com/training/

If you live in greater Minnesota and are interested in becoming a MnFIRE training instructor, please join us for our next virtual Train the Trainer class on Wednesday, April 10, at 6:30 p.m. via Zoom.

With the help of our medical experts, you'll learn how to help deliver this crucial training about cancer, cardiac and emotional wellness to firefighters in your area. To register, contact DeeDee Jankovich, MnFIRE Director of Program Delivery, at djankovich@mnfireinitiative.com.
... See MoreSee Less

If you live in greater Minnesota and are interested in becoming a MnFIRE training instructor, please join us for our next virtual Train the Trainer class on Wednesday, April 10, at 6:30 p.m. via Zoom.

With the help of our medical experts, youll learn how to help deliver this crucial training about cancer, cardiac and emotional wellness to firefighters in your area. To register, contact DeeDee Jankovich, MnFIRE Director of Program Delivery, at djankovich@mnfireinitiative.com.
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