By OLAN FIELD
When local firefighters and paramedics respond to a 9-1-1 call, they normally meet an individual having one of the worst days of their life.
For Mike Nettles, a Guthrie firefighter, this reality would hit close to home on a cold winter’s day, when he found himself responding to a rollover accident where a small girl, the same age as his daughter, would die.
“I would say kids are the worst part of this job,” Nettles said. “They can’t protect themselves. They rely on adults to keep them safe. When that’s not done, you just know that there is a life that has been wasted because of somebody else. If an adult decides not to wear a seatbelt and drive 130 mph on an icy highway and gets in a wreck. That is a decision the driver made. The child can’t make those decisions for themselves.”
The small girl was unbuckled playing in the rear cargo hold in an SUV. During the rollover, this rear portion took the brunt of the roll. Everyone else in the vehicle would survive.
The sights first responders see and the voices they hear can remain with them long after an accident. The men and woman who put on the uniform are human just like the rest of us – a bunch of type-A personalities who volunteer for this line of work to serve to help those in need and protect those most vulnerable. Society labels these people as heroes. Young kids look up to them and often say, “I want to be a firefighter when I grow up.” But what happens when a hero is the one in need?
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, is a mental illness that has typically been associated with military members returning from war. Firefighters and paramedics are not the first people who come to mind, but increasingly, departments around the nation are seeing signs of the mental illness among their coworkers and are acting to curb the problem.
The threat of PTSD is not believed to be a new problem, according to the Association of Fire Fighters, rather the problem is beginning to gain attention and be taken seriously.
“I do feel like the if there is a stigma that exists within not just firefighters, but in all three (police, paramedics and firefighters) overall that exist,” said Greg Machtolff, a firefighter and police officer in Guthrie, when asked about a stigma that prevents first responders from seeking help.
According to a study from the International Association of Fire Fighters in 2016, almost 20 percent of firefighters experience signs of PTSD, such as disturbed sleep, increased irritability, self-destructive or reckless behavior.
“I don’t know what it would take (to change the stigma). Probably just more talking about it. We usually hash all our problems out at this table you’re sitting at right now,” said Nettles, sitting at a solid oak table in the kitchen of the Guthrie Fire Department.
The table and kitchen are just inside the building from the garage. It is the first room Guthrie firefighters enter after responding to a call.
The most common signs of PTSD in firefighters are replaying the event in their mind, difficulty sleeping, or upsetting thoughts and feelings, according to the Association of Fire Fighters.
Guthrie’s firefighters have resources for help if requested. Machtolff explained resources in Oklahoma City’s and Edmond’s fire departments are accessible.
“It would have to take city and state government actions,” said Machtolff, in response to taking greater action in addressing PTSD. “Without their support that is not going to happen.”
The cultural stigma to suppress any form of emotion in a predominantly male-dominated field, is a real problem. In 2017, more firefighters died from suicide than out during a call. At least 103 firefighter suicides in comparison to 93 firefighters in the line of duty.
In 2017, Center of Excellence for Behavioral Health Treatment and Recovery opened to better address the needs that come with mental health, substance abuse and alcoholism of firefighters and paramedics.
“I mean there’s always the ‘tough guys’ stigma with any kind of emergency services,” said Machtolff.
“(First responders) are definitely A-type personalities and probably a lot of those people, you know, bottle stuff, so that they can maintain the appearance of that A-type personality. It is totally not necessary,” Nettles said.
The cultural stigma that surrounds seeking help for PTSD results in first responders being afraid of being perceived as weak. Along with not having a clear course for recovery, others fear the results of missing work for extended periods.
“Getting back to the job or, you know, losing out on some of their retirement. There is not a set program. I think that we need to have a program to where we know that if you have this problem, you can do something,” Machtolff said. “Verbalize the process of when you tell somebody that I can’t, you know? I’m having a problem. I can’t sleep. I’m stressed out. You know, that incident really bothering me. There’s nothing that says OK, from step A through Z, then we try to get you back to your work.”
With the 2016 study from the International Association of Fire Fighters, some departments have acted, to ensure that firefighters have the access to help that they may need.
“I think we definitely have taken steps in the right direction for mental health,” said Parker Melendez, a first-year firefighter and paramedic in Guthrie. “This department, there are still some changes that could be made, and some stigmas lifted to maybe make that a little bit better.”
The future is not clear on how city and state governments will act in the struggle of understanding and caring for firefighters with PTSD. Until then, first responders will continue to work like heroes.
First responders with continue to conduct one of the hardest jobs society can ask of an individual and at times these people will need to take a break, just as Nettles needed when he arrived at that rollover accident.
“The young lady was the age of my daughter,” Nettles said as he reflected on the memory. “She wore the same white Hanes socks, with the purple toned purple heal as my daughter, Susan.”