Firefighters and first responders run into dangerous situations every day to help people in our community, not knowing if they’ll make it back home to their families. While many put on a brave exterior, a new study shows more firefighters died from suicide in 2017 than on the job.
It’s been one year since the debris flow in Montecito and for Montecito Fire Department Engineer Lucas Grant, driving around the community isn’t the same.
“It’s pretty wild to still drive through the district and still see the houses that are still wrecked and all the devastation that’s still surrounding us. I know a lot of people are rebuilding but it’s still surreal,” Grant said.
Grant and his coworkers worked countless hours in the mud and debris before they were able to return home. When Grant had a chance to reflect back on the whirlwind of devastation, he had trouble coming to terms with what he saw.
He struggled for several weeks before finally making a call to the “At Ease” program, a new Santa Barbara County hotline that helps connect first responders with counselors.
“You don’t really realize you need to talk to someone until you do. So for me, it was like, why not? Why not just go talk and let’s process the things that I saw, specifically on the debris flow, that were pretty devastating,” Grant said.
A recent study from the Ruderman Family Foundation found many first responders have a difficult time processing trauma experienced on the job. They experience PTSD and depression at levels five times greater than private citizens.
“Your instinct is telling you ‘run away’ and they’ll go straight into a situation like that that’s completely dangerous, rescue people and help people and going in and going against your instinct is going to have consequences for some people. We’re human beings and when you see something horrific or tragic, there’s consequences that occur in the brain,” explained Arroyo Grande Psychological Assistant Dr. Rebecca Gervasi.
Dr. Gervasi says there are many signs someone may be suffering from PTSD but it manifests differently in everyone.
“You kinda just need to get back in there and peel back the layers of the onion and figure out what symptoms are causing them, behavioral issues that need to be addressed because you don’t want this person to be isolated and alone and lonely and feeling suicidal,” she said.
Dr. Gervasi says many first responders don’t seek help because they’re afraid of losing their jobs, being reassigned or battling the stigma. She wants changes made to make people feel more comfortable coming forward.
“There’s policies and things I think that could be looked at in terms of our responders in order to erase that stigma of going in and asking for help so that they don’t not come and eventually we see the worst results happen and lives are lost,” Gervasi said.
Grant says the Montecito Fire Department is pretty progressive when it comes to addressing mental health but he’d like to see more men and women in his profession reach out for help.
“I think we need to put our mental health at the forefront because if we’re not mentally ready to respond, we’re not going to be as sharp as we need to and we’re not going to be able to provide the best care that we need to for our community,” Grant explained.
KSBY reached out to Santa Maria City Fire, Five Cities Fire and San Luis Obispo City Fire to see what programs they have in place to help with mental health.
All three departments say they do peer counseling with several staff members trained to help with counseling efforts and directing staff members on where to find help.
Santa Maria City Fire Battalion Chief Mike Barneich says they also do critical incident debriefing and the department is at the beginning stages of creating a chaplain system for first responders and the families of tragedies they respond to.
Five Cities Fire Chief Steve Lieberman says in addition to peer counseling, he has been trained so members of his staff can come to him if they are in need of help.
Both Five Cities Fire and San Luis Obispo City Fire have staff members that are part of San Luis Obispo County’s Critical Incident Stress Debriefing Team.
This is a team of peer counselors that help lead discussions after serious incidents.
San Luis Obispo City Fire Battalion Chief Bob Bisson says these discussions are done within 48-72 hours of an incident to prevent the effects of what they’ve seen from getting worse.