More than a quarter century after Robert Borker first joined Arizona’s fire service, he is working to better prepare soon-to-be firefighters by giving them resources that weren’t always readily available, starting with mental health training.
As the director of the Fire Science program at Yavapai College, Borker is starting the conversation around on-the-job mental health before his students even respond to their first call.
“We really want to be leading the industry in helping firefighters to be safe and really have a good career, and then after their career, have a successful life,” Borker said.
In order to graduate from the YC fire academy, students must now complete the Before Operational Stress program that will give them the tools necessary to be proactive with their own mental health.
Founded and developed by psychologist Dr. Megan McElheran, the BOS program is designed to educate people, chiefly public safety personnel, about the potential signs and symptoms of operational stress and provide them with tools for how to better manage it.
“It feels really good to feel like we’re doing more than just reacting to injuries and problems when they develop,” McElheran said. “We’re trying to do something here that’s a little bit more on the upstream.”
And while this training is invaluable, Borker was hesitant to add even more in-person instruction to an already packed fire academy course load, but the online self-paced format of the BOS Program that was borne out of the pandemic was a perfect fit for his students. The course is still clinically facilitated but students can complete it at their own pace throughout the semester, Borker said.
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Stigma likely hindered earlier progress
Both Borker and McElheran agree that training like this has been a long time coming, but prior progress was likely hindered by the still significant stigma surrounding mental health, especially in careers like police and fire.
“People really bought into this myth that if you’re a firefighter or a cop or whatever, you’re supposed to be impenetrable and you’re not bothered by anything,” McElheran said. “And that’s really had some pretty negative mental health costs.”
According to data from the U.S. Fire Administration, more first responders die of suicide than in the line of duty each year. Further, public safety personnel are five times more likely to suffer from symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression than their civilian counterparts.
Looking back on his long career as an Arizona firefighter, Borker is hoping to equip new firefighters with knowledge and tools that he didn’t have.
“(Mental health) just wasn’t anything that we talked about,” Borker said, of his early firehouses. “We had a lot of other really important conversations, but that just wasn’t one of them. And so we would run those calls, we’d come back to the station and depending on how you feel, you may talk about it and you may not. And then you would just go about your day and run the next call,” he said.
“And I can’t imagine how unscrambled your mind might be if you had that ability to understand what was going on, to seek help and it was okay to do that,” he said.
Thanks at least in part to programs like this one, open conversations about mental health are becoming more common in places that likely would have been the most resistant in the past, like around the kitchen table of a firehouse.
“The conversation is changing,” McElheran said. “People are much more willing to think about these things and much more willing to consider that there’s a different way to do it.”
Another time thinking shifted on longtime practices
Notably, Borker pointed out that this is not the first time that the fire service industry as a whole has shifted its thinking on longtime practices, like cancer risk and prevention.
In the past, Borker said, dirty gear was seen as a badge of honor for seasoned firefighters, evidence of all the calls they’ve gone on. Equipped with new information about the dangers of carcinogens even after they return to the station, firefighters are no longer sleeping with dirty turnout gear next to their beds, like Borker did when he first joined.
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Instead now, they follow detailed decontamination protocols for themselves and their gear and equipment.
Borker carried these practices into the fire academy as well, budgeting for two sets of gear for each student, one of which is only worn when working with Class A combustibles like wood or paper, ensuring that they aren’t running the rest of their drills in dirty gear.
“What they teach in the fire service now versus what they taught 30 years ago has just dramatically changed,” Borker said, and he wants to make sure today’s graduating firefighters have all the best tools at their disposal.
“This is just a good building block, good foundation for people to set their feet on, on the way to better mental health,” he said.
Coverage of northern Arizona on azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic is funded by the nonprofit Report for America and a grant from the Vitalyst Health Foundation in association with The Arizona Republic.