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Nurturing the mental health of local first responders

Published: Aug. 27, 2021 at 9:26 AM PDT
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RENO, Nev. (KOLO) - The mental health of our first responders is now a focus of the training at Truckee Meadows Fire and Rescue.

“By nature, we want to be there to help people,” said James Brumfield, president of the Truckee Meadows Firefighter Foundation. “And we’re going to be the last to speak up when something is bothering us.”

That’s why its members are being encouraged to simply talk to each other, so the horrors they see on the job don’t build up inside.

“The stigma of the warrior never hurts, well that’s silly,” said Steve Nicholas, a clinician embedded with Truckee Meadows Fire and Rescue. “Very ordinary people asked to do extraordinary things. And a very average and ordinary day for a firefighter, is based upon usually the worst day of somebody.”

Firefighters are usually one of the first on-scene at tragedies all over our area, and those experiences can take an emotional toll.

“It’s the quite, self-reflection time where it seems like some of the darkest moments get re-lived again,” admitted Brumfield.

“It’s when they go home,” added Nicholas. “And they’re not necessarily in that mindset, that the stack of three cereal bowls in the sink will be the tip-over moment.”

That’s why the Northern Nevada Peer Support Network is trying to encourage first responders to engage each other, and open up about pretty much anything.

“You know what, it’s okay to not be okay,” stressed Sarah Nemeth, the Peer Support co-coordinator. “It’s just a conversation between two people, like hey I’m here for you. Do you need to talk?”

It’s those simple conversations that can make people feel more connected and less isolated. Especially considering most first responders wear emotional “armor”, staying detached while out in the field.

“We are failing to train people to come home,” continued Nemeth. “To say, hey you know what, take that armor off and go home and kiss your kids and be empathetic. And have feelings.”

It’s one reason why divorce and substance abuse rates are so high among firefighters.

“Beginning conversations start to normalize the fact that we talk about not just the tough stuff, not just the amazing stuff. We talk about it all,” added Nicholas. “Instead of just the wait until you’re down and I’ll help you up.”

The “active listening” training aims to make these conversations a normal part of the day, as a preventative measure to relieve any feelings of anxiety, depression and PTSD. It’s something that could have possibly helped Tyler Ewald.

“Tyler’s death was an incredible wake-up call that we need to be better,” said Brumfield.

Ewald took his own life back in 2019, something most people never saw coming.

“He texted me the night before about going dirt-biking,” explained Brumfield.

Ewald’s turnout coat now hangs above the door at Fire Station 40, as a reminder that tragedies seen on the job has an impact on everyone. And that help is available to anyone in need.

“Tyler left an indelible mark on this department,” added Brumfield. “The person that he was when he was here in these walls is the larger legacy that he leaves behind.”

The Northern Nevada Peer Support Network is available to all first responders. You can find more information about its mission by clicking the link below.

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