Looking Back & Moving Forward: The Impact of COVID-19 on First Responder Behavioral Health
“2020 was our dumpster fire year.” The COVID-19 pandemic, wildland fires, staffing issues, civil unrest, public distrust and political tension all contributed to a physically and emotionally stressful year – especially for our first responders. As we reflect on the events and effects of the last 14 months, it’s important to take time to analyze what we’ve done well and how we can improve in the challenging scenarios we will surely face in the future.
A recent webinar from the Firefighter Resource Network discussed just that. Pulling together fire service leaders from across the country, the event explored their experiences and the experiences of their personnel throughout tumultuous 2020 – and how behavioral health has played and continues to play a crucial role.
The Current State of First Responders
After a year of turmoil, first responders are tired. They are exhausted physically, experiencing prolonged high levels of stress and excessive emotional tension – both on and off-duty. Not only have personnel been experiencing higher-than-normal call volumes that expose them to greater risk of COVID-19 infection, but the stress carries over into first responders’ personal lives more than ever before. First responders are not just worried about the risk of COVID-19 to themselves, but the risk of bringing it home to their families and infecting others. Kids are doing schooling at home. Political tensions and partisan disagreements are high. “At this point, they just need to catch their breath – we need a break,” says LA County Fire Department Capt. Scott Ross. There is seemingly no escape from the problems – whether at work or at home.
“Compared to regular bad calls where you go to work, you deal with the bad call and then you come back to the station and it’s over – it hasn’t been over for any of our folks,” explains Dr. Marc Kruse of the Austin Fire Department. “And it’s not over when they go home because their families are dealing with the COVID response, too.” In the age of COVID-19, the “bad call” doesn’t end: High stress levels permeate the lives of first responders whether on calls or not – and it can be hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Responding with Technology
Technology has been a critical component of every public safety agency’s response to the pandemic. Technology played a vital role in sharing information with personnel and their families, fostering a sense of camaraderie among members, maintaining training certifications and other continuing efforts. While everyone wants to be back in-person for training, for meetings and for every other aspect of “normal” life, technology has acted as a good stand-in to reinforce a sense of community and do away with the sense of isolation that easily creeps in.
It’s important to find the positive takeaways and determine where there is room for improvement.
“Information is healing as well,” explains FDNY Captain Frank Leto. “Instead of just changing the protocol, there was an explanation of why the protocol was changing.” Technology enabled department leaders to effectively share information, including through email, internal websites and collaboration with unions, at every stage of the pandemic. With changing information, shifting policies and procedures, and new COVID-related guidelines each day, personnel and family members needed simple and clear avenues of communication.
Handling the Stress
The unpredictable and stressful events of the past year have undoubtedly taken a toll on first responders. An extended period of high stress levels can lead to a detrimental shift in mindset. Some members respond to the consistent stress in displaying anger and irritability, but the webinar panelists stressed the pandemic can’t be an excuse for bad behavior. “The behavior standard is the behavior standard,” says East Hartford (CT) Fire Department Chief John Oates. “Maybe you give people a little bit of drag because of the pandemic, but you can’t change the standard.” The community expects professional and effective first responders and that is what agencies must provide. Agencies should offer, promote and encourage use of support programs to help personnel reshape their focus and attitude – at work and beyond.
Even greater emphasis on peer support was a central facet in the behavioral health response for many agencies to provide an effective avenue to strengthen wellness. Peer support team members want to help and support their fellow first responders. Unsurprisingly, these are not the type of people to speak up or express when they themselves are overwhelmed by stress. Leaders need to know when peer support team members are feeling the effects of their responsibilities so they can manage the team effectively and ensure the behavioral health of all personnel. Because everyone has been struggling and experiencing the same stressors, peer support is increasingly necessary but also has an even greater effect on the peers themselves.
As we look back on our agencies and on first responder behavioral health over the last year, the impact of COVID-19 and all the other “dumpster fire” elements is clear. Now, as we move forward, it’s important to find the positive takeaways and determine where there is room for improvement. We can take the things we have learned and ensure a better response in the future, with an increasingly dedicated focus on wellness.