Madison firefighters unveil peer support program as report shows - WKOW 27: Madison, WI Breaking News, Weather and Sports

Madison firefighters unveil peer support program as report shows higher rates of PTSD and suicide

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MADISON (WKOW)-- It's no secret, fighting fires is a dangerous profession.

"Unfortunately things happen and firefighters are the ones typically to see those things," Madison Fire Captain Scott Bavery says.

However, the dangers don't go away when the firefighters leave the scene of an emergency. The physical danger may be gone, but for many firefighters the mental danger remains for many years to come.

"It's how you handle that afterward that's really going to make or break that individual," Bavery says.

That mental danger often manifests itself as PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). According to a new report put out by the International Association of Fire Fighters, 20% of firefighters currently have PTSD. That's compared to a rate of 3.5% for the general public.

The report goes on to say how a recent survey conducted by Florida State University revealed 46.8% of firefighters admitting to have suicidal thoughts at least once during their career. What's even more concerning is 19.2% say they had once made plans to commit suicide and 15.5% say they attempted suicide at least once over the course of their career.

Madison Fire Chief Steve Davis wasn't surprised by the numbers. He says numerous firefighters have reported having suicidal thoughts during his time as chief. He says so far they haven't seen an active duty firefighter commit suicide, but they have seen three retired firefighters over the last five years who took their own lives.

"We don't know if PTSD is the cause of that, but we suspect it," Chief Davis explains.

"I do exit interviews with every firefighter that leaves this job and many of them mention some of the bad calls that they were on that still affect them."

In order to combat this concerning issue, Madison firefighters are starting a peer support program to help firefighters after a critical incident. They are working with the Madison Employee Assistance Program to provide training for every firefighter with the department. The training will include teaching them how to identify when a co-worker is dealing with mental health issues. The training will then teach them how to report those issues so they can get the help they need.

"By suggesting that they reach out for professional help and then being able to guide them as co-worker, because we've experienced a lot of the same things," Madison Fire Division Chief Paul Ripp says.

Ripp and other division chiefs are hoping to have the training in place early next year. The trainers will travel to all 13 stations in the city of Madison and will provide the training to all three shifts.

The program is similar to what the National Volunteer Fire Council is doing with its Share the Load Program.

"It's kind of been the elephant in the room for us for a lot of years. Finally, we are addressing it," former chairman and La Farge Fire Chief Phil Stittleburg says.

The International Association of Fire Fighters is advocating for better health coverage to help those battling mental health issues.

To read their full report, click here.

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