How Officers Can Help a Fire Fighter in Need

Author: IAFF Staff

October 13, 2019

If you are a union or department officer, it is critical that you are aware of the signs that may indicate a member is experiencing a behavioral health problem or crisis. In a position of leadership or authority, it can be more difficult to detect how your members are doing on an individual or emotional level.

Concerns about mental health stigma, promotions or rank may often prevent a fire fighter from speaking honestly with a supervisor.

Therefore, as an officer, it’s important to pay attention to observable behavioral and physical changes in your members, including:

  • Decline in work performance
  • Disinterest in work or performance feedback
  • Recurring mood swings or irritability
  • Noticeable increase or decrease in weight or appetite
  • Reported sleep problems, observable grogginess
  • Recurring absences or an unexcused absence 
  • Less talkative at the kitchen table or around the fire station
  • Difficulty interacting with other crew members
  • Disappearing or isolating for large parts of the shift
  • Crew feedback that the member seems different or is struggling
  • Drastic, sudden changes in a person’s living situation or relationships at home
  • Recurring financial problems or debt
  • Increased need for privacy around cellphone usage
  • Bloodshot eyes, pinpoint pupils or alcohol odor
  • Poor hygiene or noticeable changes in physical appearance
  • Observed dissatisfaction, apathy or cynicism toward the job, the crew or life
Firefighter officer who can assist a fellow firefighter in need

How to Intervene

If you have a member showing the signs listed above, it is your responsibility as a company officer to intervene.

The member may just need to talk or need a couple of days off to deal with a family matter. On the other hand, the member may be struggling with a serious mental health or substance abuse problem that needs professional intervention. You don’t know until you ask.

Your relationship with the member may dictate how you choose to intervene. Some options include:

  • Ask the member privately, “I’ve noticed some changes in you lately. How are you doing?”
  • Ask your peer support team leader to check in with the member
  • Ask another crew member who is friendly with the person how he or she is doing
  • Refer the member to your department clinician or EAP

When Is Residential Treatment Needed?

Individuals typically seek residential treatment when issues have not been resolved at a lower level of outpatient care. In some cases, however, residential treatment is clinically indicated when there is no prior treatment history. When a member’s work, family, home or social life is severely impaired by symptoms or behavior, residential treatment may be a good choice. Residential treatment can also provide an added layer of anonymity that is difficult to achieve at a local treatment facility.

Consider the IAFF Center of Excellence

The IAFF Center of Excellence is a one-of-a-kind residential behavioral health treatment facility designed by IAFF members for IAFF members. In a survey of IAFF members treated at the Center of Excellence, 68% reported they would not or probably would not have sought treatment if the setting was not exclusively for fire fighters (IAFF Center of Excellence Discharge Survey, 2019).

With accommodations in one of four station houses, patients share an instant bond forged on the mutual understanding of life in the fire service.

If You Think a Member Is Suicidal: Do Not Wait

While symptoms of a behavioral health problem are not always obvious, suicide warning signs are clear behavioral, emotional or interpersonal cues that a member is at immediate risk of attempting suicide. These include:

  1.   Talking about or feeling hopeless, trapped or having no reason to live
  2.   Talking or thinking about wanting to die
  3.   Talking about or feeling unbearable pain
  4.   Researching or planning ways to kill oneself
  5.   Talking about or feeling like a burden to others
  6.   Talking about or feeling a lack of belonging
  7.   Calling people to say goodbye
  8.   Giving away prized possessions
  9.   Abandoning social, occupational and daily activities
  10.   Severe and sudden changes in sleep, substance use, and mood

If a member is displaying any of the signs above, he or she should be escorted to a licensed mental health provider, an emergency room or accompanied during a call to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Once your IAFF member is in a safe place, an admission to the Center of Excellence can be swiftly coordinated.

Call the IAFF Center of Excellence today to learn more about comprehensive treatment options.

Lauren Kosc, M.A., LCPC is a behavioral health specialist, clinician and staff writer for the International Association of Fire Fighters. If you are an IAFF member in recovery and want to share your story, contact [email protected].

Medical Disclaimer: The IAFF Center of Excellence aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.

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