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Firefighters suffering from PTSD reach alarming heights

Posted: 9:54 PM, Feb 02, 2018
Updated: 2018-02-03 05:54:52Z

It’s a day Kern County Fire Captain Derek Robinson can’t seem to get out of his mind. “That’s the most recent one that will probably haunt me for the rest of my life,” Robinson said. 

It was the day after Thanksgiving 2017. As thousands of families were coming together to celebrate the holiday’s, one family would be forever changed because of the selfish actions of another. 

“You can’t describe the emotions or what goes through you when you’re pulling on scene and you see another firefighter doing CPR already on a child as you’re getting there,” Robinson described. 

A family pulling over on Highway 99 to change a flat fire, were struck from behind by a drunk driver. “We lost one of the children, and the mother, the father and the second child I believe survived,” Robinson recalled. 

The crash, and several others from that weekend made the news. Robison coming home that night, having to tell his son about the incident—taking the time to remind him what he does on a daily basis, and why it sometimes affects him. 

I took that opportunity to explain my son that’s what dad does, and has to deal with,” Robinson said. “So when I come home from work, and I give you a hug...that’s why, dad just needs a hug.” 

It was that call and so many others over Robinson’s 17-year career that inspired him to speak out, about a topic that for a long time has remained a silent struggle for so many in his profession. 

He, and others living day to day with post traumatic stress. “Most of my calls I remember involve children, that passed unfortunately, through the circumstances of the call. So every time I get a call that deals with children potentially in that situation, my blood pressure spikes, my heart rate spikes.” Robinson said. 

It’s those intense, high-stress calls that Kern County Fire Battalion Chief Dinisio Mitchell says are the reason more firefighters are battling with post traumatic stress. “We’re exposed to many types traumatic incidents, things no one should have to see,” Mitchell said. 

Recent data from the International Firefighting Union backing up just how stressful the job can be, revealing that firefighters experienced a suicide rate 6-times higher than the general population—and for the first time in 2017 firefighters who took their own lives, surpassed the number who were killed in the line of duty. 

It’s the reason Mitchell is part of a rapid response team, formed in 2004—training and deploying fellow firefighters to spot signs of PTSD and counsel their colleagues after traumatic calls. 

”I wasn’t satisfied with what was in place, or what was going on. I felt like there was more that would be done,” Mitchell said. 

In 2017, Mitchell and his team responded 48 times to meet with firefighters over traumatic calls, and set up multiple sessions where first responders can talk openly about how they feel.

But if that’s not enough there are more resources available. In Maryland, the National Firefighter Union has partnered with the Center of Excellence for Behavioral Health Treatment Recovery Centers—opening the first and only residential facility in the country designed exclusively to treat firefighters with post-traumatic stress, depression and substances abuse issues developed on the job. 

Something that center Dr. Carol Simmons says was long overdue. “What the firefighters say, is when they tried treatment in the past, in a non-fire fighting setting, the stories were so grim, that the therapeutic staff could not tolerate it.” 

The center even treating firefighters from Kern County—reinforcing the need, experts say for a similar center on the west coast. 

But until then, these brothers and sisters in blue will continue to support one other—reminding each other that their job is making a difference. “As many children as i’ve seen die, I’ve also been there when they’re born,” Capt. Robinson said. 

Spreading the message that the heroes saving lives everyday, sometimes need help themselves. 

“It reminds you that you are out there doing good. We didn’t do anything to cause any of those tragedies to occur, but we did the best we could.”