Extensive Fire Department audit reveals high level of stress among firefighters & medics, city to respond with robust employee assistance program

Extensive Fire Department audit reveals high level of stress among firefighters & medics, city to respond with robust employee assistance program

  • 225 firefighters & medics interviewed as part of in-depth review of firehouse conditions
  • City to develop a more robust peer-to-peer counseling program modeled after Boston’s to better support to Fire and EMS personnel suffering from work-related stress and trauma
  • Also recommends updated leave policies that support substance abuse recovery efforts
  • Changes expected to be in place later this summer

The city’s Firefighters and medics suffer at a high rate from work-related stress and trauma and more needs to be done to provide them with the type of support programs that can help them better cope, according to an extensive study issued today by the City of Detroit.  In response to the findings, Deputy Mayor Conrad Mallett, who let the development of the environmental audit, says the city is committing to significantly expanding its employee assistance program for the entire Fire Department.

The review was launched in late March following two on-duty alcohol-related accidents involving DFD personnel that raised concerns about work-related trauma and stress potentially contributing to a pattern of substance abuse or other inappropriate behavior. Mallett led the review, which encompassed 5 firehouses, and interviews with 225 DFD personnel from both the fire and EMS sides of the department. Through a series of questions posed to each member, the eye-opening review brought to life the mental and emotional stress experienced by DFD personnel and led to recommendations that address the challenges facing Fire and EMS employees in a supportive way.

The report, which can be found on the DFD page of the city’s website, praises the work of the Department’s only current peer counselor, Lenette Woods, but makes clear that one counselor, no matter how good, is capable of servicing a department with 1,000 members. To address this, the report makes two key recommendations:

  • Establish a more robust peer-to-peer counseling program that will be staffed at all times by no fewer than four trained and certified counselors who are members of the department
  • Review departmental leave policies and make adjustments as needed to ensure they are supportive of the needs of some department members for meaningful substance abuse recovery opportunities.

As they develop the city’s new program, administration, union, and fire department officials will study Boston’s program, which is recognized nationally for its effectiveness, as a model.  Mallet expects to have a full implementation plan developed within the next 60 days and for the new staff, program, and policies to be in place later this summer.

“What we learned from this process is that many of our firefighters and medics are struggling to cope with the trauma and stress they face every day and that we, as a city and a department, have not done enough to support them,” said Mallett.  “Instead of having a robust peer support program to turn to, some turned to alcohol or other inappropriate behavior as a coping mechanism. It’s not right that we ask these men and women to be there for us during our time of crisis and we haven’t been there for them during theirs.”

Firefighters, paramedics, and EMTs are at a heightened risk for depression, PTSD and suicide when compared to the general population, and based on assessment responses, Detroit first responders were largely unaware of the City of Detroit’s employee assistance programs for which they could seek help.

“The fire service is a great career option and allows individuals to serve others by saving lives and saving property but there are dangers associated with choosing a career as a first responder. For example, this audit identified the danger of post-traumatic stress disorder or depression,” said Eric Jones, Executive Fire Commissioner. “Therefore, we must ensure that we provide robust resources to the men and women of the Detroit Fire Department so that they can adequately cope with this danger.  I wholeheartedly agree with the recommendations listed in the audit. I will work with my colleagues to begin the process of implementing these recommendations.”

Mallett, who visited each of the firehouses and spoke directly to many of the firefighters and medics, said he was profoundly moved by their candor.  “Heroes can have a hard time asking for help, but the unvarnished honesty so many of our DFD family offered was deeply affecting and will help us all make for a better Detroit Fire Department for all of us,” Mallet said.