Breaking the Stigma: Supporting Firefighters’ Mental Health

It should have been a routine workday for Walter Escobar.

The assistant fire unit manager in the Department of Natural Resources’ Southeast Region had a young firefighter cut down a burning tree.

As the firefighter followed Escobar’s assignment, the unexpected happened – a large, burning branch fell and struck the firefighter.

Because the firefighter was looking up, he was able to duck out of the way. The branch clipped his arm and left a nasty bruise, but the incident still haunts Escobar.

If the firefighter hadn’t been following protocol, he could have been killed.

“That was my call,” Escobar said. “It was my decision.”

Escobar isn’t the only person in the fire industry awake at night thinking about the “what-ifs.” The stressors of a severe wildfire season don’t dissipate after the fires have been extinguished. When the ash settles and wildfire crews have gotten their hard-earned break, they are carrying much more than their gear home.

‘YOUR HOME AWAY FROM HOME’

Every year, fire crews head out into the Washington state wilderness, primed to take on the beast that is wildfire. Firefighters work grueling hours, providing plenty of time to form close bonds with their counterparts. Many crews connect deeply through the experience of doing tough work with service-minded people.

“You spend so much time with your crew, they become your home away from home,” said Escobar, who worked on a 20-person hand crew for the majority of his career. Hand crews go back into landscapes that are inaccessible to vehicles, using tools like chain saws and Pulaskis to create fire lines. Although some are career firefighters, many of them are hired only for fire season.

Heading back home after the primary fire season can be a burden on some firefighters, especially those who work seasonally.

Seasonal workers spend six to eight months with their crewmates, forming a tight-knit community at work. When that newly formed family is taken away at the end of a season, some can struggle to readjust, said Josh Mohler, North Unit Assistant Fire Manager for Lewis, Grays Harbor, and Pacific counties for DNR. Mohler has worked seasonally for the majority of his firefighting career.

Some find it hard to find jobs in the off-season and connect with their old communities, he said, but for others, the issue dives even deeper.

“A lot of folks, we invest our personalities into our jobs,” Mohler said. “When I started as a volunteer, I was that guy wearing all the shirts, buying all the firefighter paraphernalia, spending whatever free time my wife would allow me down at the fire station. I was all in.”

A firefighter’s essence can become rooted in the thrill, pressure, and camaraderie of the work itself. When wildfire season ends, some feel like they are losing not only their family, but part of their identity, too, Mohler said.

“Anytime you’re removed from something that you’ve invested so much of your personality into, it leaves a gap that you don’t know what to do with.”

FIGHTING THE ‘TOUGH-GUY’ TYPECAST

Despite the struggles seasonal and permanent wildland firefighters deal with, mental health isn’t a topic frequently brought up among crews. Mohler, Escobar, and other DNR fire employees are working to change that.

In recent years, there has been a reported increase of mental health issues within wildland firefighter communities.  Mohler doesn’t deny that it has become more of an issue, but believes it has been lying under the surface for years.

“I think these things have existed through generations, there’s just a few things in society that have changed. The fact that we’re having the conversation on breaking the stigma and talking about it is different,” Mohler said, adding that open conversations about mental health were not happening 20 years ago. “Old-timers were stoic about it, went about their life and kept it to themselves.”

Negative connotations associated with mental health were, and to an extent, still are prevalent among fire crews.

“There was a time when you didn’t dare talk about it,” Escobar said.

Gabe Baez, a safety officer with DNR, said this could be due to mental health issues being equated with weakness. Baez recognizes the well-established “tough-guy” wildland firefighter typecast which many may feel pressure to live up to.

Mohler sees the lack of communication around mental health as a serious issue and worries about those who may be bottling their emotions due to stigma. He uses an analogy of pebbles being placed in a pocket. Each stone signifies a struggle — if you add more and more stones to the pocket without sharing them with others, eventually, they’ll overflow.

Although there aren’t strong statistics on mental health for wildland firefighters, many firefighters have been affected, or know a crewmate affected by the issue.

“I’ve had several people within my close circle of comrades and workmates that have been severely affected by the compounding effects of the job,” Mohler said.

The Cowlitz 2 Fire and Rescue lost one of their own on Sept. 19, 2019. The group is mourning the loss of Battalion Chief Mike Zainfeld, who took his own life after 25 years of service at Cowlitz 2. Zainfeld worked in both wildland fire and incident management along the way, also as a seasonal wildland firefighter for DNR.  Due to his struggles with PTSD as a result of job-related incidents, Cowlitz 2 considers his death a line of duty event.

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Battalion Chief Mike Zainfeld’s memorial procession on Oct., 1, 2019 in Longview, WA.

Cowlitz 2 was very transparent the circumstances of Zainfeld’s passing. Fire Chief Dave Lafave said evasiveness wasn’t an option.

“I learned a long time ago, ‘tell the truth’,” Lafave said. “We need to make sure it doesn’t happen again, but how do we do that if we don’t talk about it?”

Lafave worked with Zainfeld for many years, and has worked in the fire industry for 36 years. Over the course of his career he’s seen major changes in how mental health is discussed among fire crews.

“When I started I was told to ‘buck up if you can’t take it.’ Repeatedly,” he said. But this isn’t the case anymore, Lafave said, and if you need to talk, there’s people there to listen. He hopes this tragedy will encourage others to intervene with their friends and family members if they see indicators of struggle. The earlier you say something, the more effective it will be, he said.

Mohler recognized his own struggle with mental health issues after working in the emergency industry for 20 years and experiencing an unexpected loss in his family.

“Being away from home and the stress of trying to function at 100 percent, 100 percent of the time, that created sleep anxiety. I was anxious because I needed to sleep but I couldn’t because I was anxious. It was a vicious cycle.”

Mohler is a self-described “fixer.” He’s good at finding solutions and making changes, but after several months of struggling, Mohler recognized that he wasn’t in control anymore.

“I couldn’t fix myself,” he said.

He sought help through DNR’s Employee Assistance Program. Mohler found a great deal of value in opening up with others, so he pursued tough conversations with his fellow firefighters.

“I felt like sharing my story gave others the opportunity to share theirs,” he said.

 ‘NOT ALL WOUNDS ARE VISIBLE’

As Mohler’s own struggles after two decades of fire service demonstrated, not all wounds are visible.

That became the focal message of the movement Mohler spearheaded at DNR, called “#breakthestigma,” to highlight the unseen mental health issues DNR firefighters face. The campaign raised money for the Eric Marsh Foundation, which supports wildland firefighters and their families through resource connections and financial support. #Breakthestigma also sought to raise awareness and increase the amount of open and empathetic peer conversations within DNR. Mohler plans to start the campaign again next spring.

Baez emphasized the need for active empathetic conversation within fire crews, before, during, and after wildfire season, something Escobar echoed separately. Specifically, Baez said supervisors should pave the way for their crew members.

The signs of internal struggle are visible, Baez said – you just have to look. Disruption in work ethic and personality changes could be a sign that something is wrong, and if you see something, you should say something.

Baez has worked in the fire industry for 17 years. Over the past decade, he has slowly seen more and more open and honest conversations about mental health. It started with a recognition and validation of the issue.

“We’ve identified that it is a problem,” Baez said.

Baez encourages all fire crew supervisors to communicate with their firefighters about seeking help, starting the process at the beginning of the season and reiterating it at the end. He also hopes seasonal crew members stay connected with their supervisors and fellow firefighters in the offseason to prevent the feeling of loss.

The realization that someone wants to check in with your mental well-being can make all the difference in some cases, Mohler said. Some wildland firefighters might feel awkward having these chats, but that doesn’t stop Mohler.

“If it saves one life, it’s all worth it,” he said.

For those seeking support, there are several resources available that allow for anonymity. Code 4 Northwest is a volunteer-run nonprofit organization that provides confidential crisis response for Washington state’s first responders, support personnel, and their families. All call-takers are current or former first responders who can talk an individual through crisis or refer them to counseling, peer support services, and more.

Pocket Peer from the Center for Firefighter Behavioral Health is another great resource for those in need. It is a service that provides informational videos, resources, and general support for firefighters and their friends and families.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration also provides a helpline for treatment referrals and general information. Firefighters in crisis can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

If you’d like to make a donation to Mike Zainfeld’s family, you can find the information at Honoringmikezainfeld.com.