ST. LOUIS – They’re battling more than flames. Firefighters in the St. Louis area are taking on added stress and anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The emotional toll is as unique as it is large, Kurt Becker, International Association of Firefighters Local 2665 District Vice President, said.
“It’s really changed the dynamic, considerably. It’s scary to know that something that we can’t see or smell or touch can have that kind effect on us, and take it home to our family,” he said.
Becker is a firefighter and paramedic with the Clayton Fire Department. Add to that anxiety the already physically demanding nature of the job.
Firefighters in St. Louis County work 48-hour tours, he said. At the end of their shift, they go home and have 96 hours to restore themselves.
The rotation has become especially challenging as families deal with layoffs, furloughs, and school closures, he said.
“Now they’re kind of out of the frying pan and into the fire. Because the minute they walk into the door, most of these guys have kids that aren’t able to go to school right now,” Becker said. “Their spouses, if they’re still working, have been furloughed or laid off or trying to telecommute and work from home. And they’ve got to homeschool these kids.”
Becker noted other events that were generated high-stress levels for firefighters and paramedics – 9/11 and Ferguson.
“The presence of that danger really elevated the tension level. What I feel when I walk into these fire stations now is exactly that same tension,” he said.
Locally, firefighters are being encouraged to seek help from mental health professionals. Brochures and other correspondences from the IAFF outline local resources available.
“There’s been a real push over the last three or four years, to create a much more focused degree of attention on firefighter behavioral health. We’ve established some resources here locally to ensure that our guys have access to trained clinicians. As well as peers within our organizations that they can talk to,” Becker said.
Becker says he receives calls for referrals on a weekly basis. That, he says, shows promise in the changing attitudes about seeking mental health guidance.
For a job that is as demanding as it is on the outside, Becker hopes more front-line workers will address what’s on the inside.
“Take charge of your headspace. Don’t just be passive on this. Set a schedule. Be disciplined about getting out and doing some exercise, going for a walk,” he said. “We got to stay vigilant about this. And that’s what’s critical here. There’s no question this is going to be with us for a while.”