More than a quarter-century after Robert Borker first joined the Arizona Fire Department, he’s worked to better prepare future firefighters by providing them with resources that weren’t always readily available, starting with mental health training. health.
As director of the fire science program at Yavapai College, Borker starts the conversation about mental health in the workplace before his students even answer their first call.
“We really want to lead the industry in helping firefighters be safe and really have a good career and then have a successful life after their career,” Borker said.
To graduate from the YC Fire Academy, students must now complete the Pre-Operational Stress program, which will give them the tools they need to be proactive with their own mental health.
Founded and developed by psychologist Dr. Megan McElheran, the BOS program is designed to educate people, primarily public safety officers, about the potential signs and symptoms of operational stress and provide them with tools on how to better manage it.
“It’s really nice to feel like we’re doing more than just responding to injuries and problems as they arise,” McElheran said. “We’re trying to do something here that’s a little more upstream.”
And while that training is invaluable, Borker was hesitant to add even more in-person instruction to the fire academy’s already overcrowded course, but the BOS program’s online self-study format, which was created by the pandemic, was perfect for his students. The course is still clinically facilitated, but students can complete it at their own pace throughout the semester, Borker said.
Stigma may have hindered earlier progress
Borker and McElheran both agree that training like this is long overdue, but previous progress has likely been hampered by the still significant stigma surrounding mental health, especially in careers like police and fire.
“People really believe in this myth that if you’re a firefighter or a police officer or whatever, you’re supposed to be invulnerable and nothing bothers you,” McElheran said. “And it really had quite a negative cost to mental health.”
According to the United States Fire Administration, more first responders die by suicide each year than in the line of duty. Additionally, public safety officers are five times more likely to suffer from PTSD and depression symptoms than their civilian counterparts.
Looking back on his long career as an Arizona firefighter, Borker hopes to equip new firefighters with knowledge and tools he didn’t have.
“(Mental health) just wasn’t something we talked about,” Borker said of his early firefights. “We had a lot of other really important conversations, but this just wasn’t one of them. And so we’d escape those calls, we’d go back to the station, and depending on how you feel, you may or may not talk about it. And then you just go about your day and make the next call,” he said.
“And I can’t imagine how messed up your mind would be if you had that ability to understand what’s going on, to seek help, and it’s okay to do that,” he said.
Thanks at least in part to programs like this one, open conversations about mental health are becoming more common in places that would probably have been most resistant in the past, like around the firehouse kitchen table.
“The conversation is changing,” McElheran said. “People are much more likely to think about these things and much more likely to think there’s a different way to do it.”
Other times, thinking has shifted to long-standing practices
Notably, Borker pointed out that this is not the first time the fire service industry as a whole has changed its thinking on longstanding practices such as cancer risk and prevention.
In the past, Borker said, dirty gear was seen as a badge of honor for experienced firefighters, a testament to all the calls they’d been on. Armed with new information about the dangers of carcinogens, even after returning to the station, firefighters no longer sleep with dirty gear next to their beds, as Borker did when he first joined.
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Instead, they now follow detailed decontamination protocols for themselves and their facilities and equipment.
Borker carried these practices into the fire academy, providing two sets of gear for each student, one of which is only worn when working with Class A combustible materials such as wood or paper, ensuring they don’t do the rest of their training in dirty equipment.
“What they teach in the fire service now compared to what they taught 30 years ago has just changed dramatically,” Borker said, and he wants to make sure today’s graduating firefighters have all the best at their disposal. tools.
“It’s just a good building block, a good foundation for people to get on the road to better mental health,” he said.
Contact Northern Arizona reporter Lacey Latch at [email protected] or on social media @laceylatch.
Coverage of Northern Arizona on azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic is funded by the nonprofit Report for America and a grant from the Vitalyst Health Foundation in collaboration with The Arizona Republic.