Resources for firefighters with PTSD are expanding - NBC Right Now/KNDO/KNDU Tri-Cities, Yakima, WA |

Resources for firefighters with PTSD are expanding

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SPOKANE, WA - We often see devastating disasters, car wrecks, water rescues, and shootings on TV... but in real life, the emotional weight behind it is entirely different. For firefighters, talking about what they see on the job isn't their favorite topic.

It's a tragedy that made national headlines in Spokane County: four students shot and one of them killed at Freeman High School. It hit too close for home, even for firefighters.

"Some of our state troopers, they have kids that go to school here," said Spokane Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer.

But watching the coverage, you may have missed what was said by Spokane's fire chief in that moment.

"That's a lot to take from a first responder perspective."

It's not just Freeman; there are a number of traumatic events - as many as two a day, according to the chief. And in bigger cities, that rate of horrific calls is even more frequent.

Taken together, the country is now facing a first responder crisis: legions of firefighters and EMTs themselves in need of rescue. The International Association of Firefighters partnered with media outlets around the country and sent anonymous surveys to firefighters.

They received 7,000 responses. Out of almost all surveyed, 95 percent say they experience critical stress on the job, and three-quarters of them say it leaves them with unresolved issues.

Many have trouble sleeping (71 percent) and are constantly haunted by memories of bad calls (65 percent.)

These three firefighters sat down with us and opened up to an internal struggle that many firefighters deal with.

"For me children are probably my biggest issue," said firefighter Mike Bacon. "Where you have a child that has had a horrific accident or trauma… that are still in my memory."

"It impacts us differently," firefighter Randy Marler explained. "It's a lot of times, an accumulation of smaller issues that just happen over and over and over throughout a career."

Bacon and Marler have worked for years as firefighters helping their community.

"The public calls typically on their worst day of their life, and firefighters have to be at their very best when they respond," Bacon said.

And what a firefighter can see on the job can be emotionally exhausting.

"It's in our nature to be the ones that are doing the helping and it's not in our nature to ask for help," said Marler.

But the culture is now changing at fire stations. Behind the scenes at the Freeman High School shooting, a firefighter peer support group stepped in ready to help their own. Cal Lindsay was one of them.

"After the dust kind of settled, everyone went through their roles as the incident played out and what came out of that and how everybody was feeling about it," Lindsay said.

 "We've learned that, you know what, there are other ways to deal with this. Instead of keeping it all balled up inside of you and creating this culture, it's all macho and you are not allowed to express your feelings, you are not allowed to share, we reverse that," said Chief Schaeffer.

According to the national survey, 77 percent of firefighters think peer-to-peer support helps.

"I think the real value of our PTSD peer support group here in Spokane is that they are firefighters that have done the job," Bacon said, "have seen the things that everyone has seen." 

"We are finding that there is more value to that than a clinical psychologist coming in from the outside and try to understand our perspective in a snapshot," said Marler.

Lindsay says his peer support group is working to make it a policy to meet with fire stations regularly, and as new firefighters join the department, PTSD is now a mandatory part of orientation.

"We also encourage other people to look out for signs and symptoms and bring awareness to guys that are on the peer support team," added Marler.

So that each firefighter can look out for each other. 

The push to help firefighters with PTSD is happening right now. Bacon says the Washington State of Firefighters introduced a bill in Olympia to the state, that would allow firefighters to have industrial insurance coverage for PTSD. The bill has already passed the Senate and the House. Bacon says the bill is expected to be signed by the governor on March 23. 

Washington will be joining other states on that PTSD legislation like Vermont, South Carolina, and Texas.