Mental Wellness and Fire Culture

Two hard-working firefighters drink water and cool themselves off in an attempt to relax after working on a fire. Can be a training exercise or real emergency.

I have had a tonne of discussions with various people in the fire service. From firefighters to chiefs, across the entire spectrum and something strikes me as odd. We discuss the “culture” of the first service, and, I think, we always know what the other means. But, take the idea just a step further. Describe fire culture.

Gets tough, doesn’t it?

Well, regarding mental wellness we seem to want to promote fire culture as maintaining a type of invisible barrier toward making progress. Fire Culture, we say, needs to “catch up,” or “well it’s the culture of the fire service that makes implementing these things difficult.” And then I go on to speak with the chief who is forward-thinking and supportive, and then the deputy, and the firefighters on the ground seem to support it as well, and I start to become confused with where this cultural barrier even lies.

But, the issue may lie more in our wish to both accept that mental wellness is a concern but also distance ourselves from it. Obviously, it becomes very difficult to make any blanket statements that would stick, and each department will invariably have its nuances and issues, but as far as I can tell from speaking with people, this is where I land.

We want to be supportive from a distance. Or, as a friend has said to me, we want “awareness” because that means the work is someone else’s problem. Just like being hazmat awareness level means we know just enough to think that the chemical is both scary and that we are ill-equipped to handle it.

And then, we call someone else.

Now, I have never endeavored to create firefighting therapists. And, I will never suggest that this is what we need. Indeed, creating partnerships with local mental health agencies and getting those folks familiar with each other is a likely way toward moving to a more accepting attitude toward mental wellness. With continuing to suggest, however, that simply having access to an EAP is enough, management may inadvertently promote the idea that they do not take the issue seriously at hand. From those that I have engaged with, however, I hear that they wish they knew more. That they understood more. That they were given a clear understanding of the issues that can affect them and what they can do to support each other.

This is the key to overcoming “fire cultural” barriers.

By allowing and supporting those on the front line to engage in mental wellness training just enough to ensure that they are effective for their peers. After all, the research is showing that peer-to-peer work is often the most accepted and most effective at overcoming mental wellness adversity. The culture, again we are told, has an issue with “outsiders.”

This is likely the most obvious barrier towards accepting help. And yet, this we consider part of the fire culture but is more likely an issue with human beings more generally. We don’t wish to accept that we might have a mental wellness concern. We continue to propagate the idea that having a mental health issue is somehow a weakness of character. This is exaggerated within the fire service because on the baseline we have this idea of the “hero.” Now, individually we may have issues with this, but simply google firefighter in the images, and you can get an idea of the baseline cultural view. With flames, explosions, and armed with axes, the hero image is difficult to deny as solidified. And, what runs counter to this image is the opposing cultural view that mental wellness is a weakness.

We can hear this echoed by those from older generations. And of course, we still have these hardened ideas sprouting from newer members. This idea of mental wellness as a weakness could be considered the resulting cultural view of an entire organization when no overt messaging for the opposing view is available. Therefore, staying silent, in effect, supports the idea. We know, or at least ought to know, that mental wellness issues within a career of trauma is an inevitability. Note, however, that I am not suggesting that we will develop mental health issues.

Indeed, by taking the issues of mental wellness seriously, we can mitigate many of the contributing factors that later lead to the very mental wellness issues we wish to avoid. This is an unfortunate irony.

Well, we now have a bit of a better grasp on what fire culture might be. The development of a cultural idea is both external (the beliefs and ideas that the public gives to us) and internal (the ideas and beliefs that the organization holds). And, when we discuss fire culture as being a barrier, we can at least look to see if what we mean is that we—yes, we—wish to avoid having the responsibility of helping others based on the injury.

So, then what can we do about it?

Well, provide a check-in organizationally. What is the messaging that you may be sending unconsciously? When asked or offered to go above and beyond simply having “bread and water” mental wellness interventions, do you suggest that operational costs are too high to consider it? Or, perhaps the most egregious, do you believe that this isn’t an issue for your department? We have a natural propensity towards blaming and wishing to pass the onerous onto others. We wish to label it a result of stigma, or of management, or of whatever other issues there are. But, we fail to recognize that we can create a powerful subculture.

This subculture is one of mental wellness acceptance and an understanding of the seriousness. One that takes the mental wellbeing of our brothers and sisters the same as those of physical wellbeing. When someone falls, we offer almost reflexively to pick them up. We can create a subculture of being able to respond similarly to mental wellness falls as well. After all, it is more likely that we will experience a mental wellness issue in our lives, so why not help now and develop the network of those who can help us later when we may need it.

Creating, if needed, a grassroots subculture allows the conversations around mental wellness to be had. And talking about them is the number one best thing we can do to trying to eliminate the stigma around it. Once it becomes everyday parlance, then it becomes an excruciatingly simple process to begin to spill the subcultural effects into the larger fire culture.

The hard part? Being the one who wishes to be more than just Mental Wellness Aware. Instead, being a proponent of mental wellness. Being one who will suggest first that a call has bothered you. But, remember that you are most certainly not alone in this and that by stepping up. Others will certainly follow.