By Mugo Odigwe

SACRAMENTO (CBS13) – Firefighters are the heroes on the front lines of major fires.

The job can affect a firefighter’s mental health. The destructive and longer fire season only makes things worse.

“This career is like nothing else. You’re going to see and experience things that a typical person doesn’t see,” said Captain Keith Wade, PIO for the Sacramento Fire Department.

Take the Camp Fire, for example, which firefighters are still working to put out as the death toll continues to rise.

“We come across kind of the worst that life has to offer,” he said.

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It has an effect on mental health. A recent study by the Ruderman Family Foundation found that firefighters are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty. In 2017, 93 firefighters died battling flames, but at least 103 died from suicide.

“Typically most firefighters have not been too forthcoming speaking about their emotions, speaking about personal problems they are having,” Wade said.

That’s why Cal Fire has a Peer Support program.

“It allows individuals to have a safe place talking with our peers within peer support and kind of unload some of those rocks that may be built up that backpack,” said Nikole Schutz, Cal Fire Battalion Chief and Peer Support Counselor.

During prolonged firefights like the Camp Fire, a peer support team is placed at a base camp. The idea is to create a safe place where firefighters can talk to fellow first responders about what they are going through.

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“We also send our peers out in the field so being proactive and saying hey would you like a cup of coffee, you’re cold, maybe lonely, Schutz said.

Officials say it’s part of a continued push to get firefighters to open up instead of bottling up the trauma they experience on the job.

“It’s okay to talk about these things. It’s okay to cry. It’s okay to let it out because you need to let it out,” Wade said.

If a firefighter needs more help after talking to a peer support member, he or she is referred to a mental health specialist to help the conversation going long term.


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