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‘You Were Macho’: Sandy Fire Department Places Priority On Mental Health

SANDY, Utah — The life of a firefighter means being ready for anything. For some, the burden of tragic calls wears on them, which is why the Sandy Fire Department has made focusing on mental health a priority.

For Firefighter EMT Tyson Astin, trying to keep his identities separate is of the utmost importance.

“I don’t wear my uniform home,” he said. “When I walk through that door, I’m dad.”

But for many firefighters, keeping that division is nearly impossible — after all, most of us have never seen the kinds of things they have.

“The top calls that are tough to deal with always deal with kids,” Astin said. “We had a car accident a couple of years ago, and there was a family that was hit by an impaired driver. The kids in the car, one of them ended up passing away and it was a similar age to my kid.”

Whether it’s a car crash, a medical call, or a fire, Sandy Fire Chief Bruce Cline said some days stick with them.

“There’s days I’ll be driving through the city, and I’ll go, ‘I remember that house. I remember what happened there,'” he said.   “And some of these calls are 20 years ago.”

Chief Cline’s been doing this job since 1990. He said back then, dealing with trauma was something you just kept to yourself.

“You were macho,” he said. “You were a firefighter. You weren’t supposed to be sad about somebody dying. We’d come back, and probably we’d joke about it, and that’s probably how we were dealing with it back then.”

For some firefighters, keeping their emotions bottled up meant it wore them down, eventually spilling over into their home lives.

“To see a lifeless body, it’s hard, and it affects you,” said Cline. “Since I’ve been the chief, there’ve been people that have gotten divorced that I just couldn’t believe. I looked at them like they have the perfect marriage, the perfect family. After talking with them about it, it’s the trauma of this job of being a firefighter — the things that we see, the smells, the sounds.”

Cline has made mental health a priority.

Crews sit down and talk about difficult calls. Some firefighters have been trained to identify those who may be struggling and make themselves available to talk.

And this year, what may be the biggest change yet.

“We spent about the last part of last year trying to identify who was the expert in doing that,” Cline said.

“That” is mandatory check-ins with a clinical psychologist who specializes in understanding the needs of first responders, evaluating their mental fitness.

Cline reached out to other fire chiefs in the area, and after listening to their advice, he was able to start the policy through the city’s Employee Assistance Program.

Firefighters fill out a questionnaire before sitting down and talking with the psychologist, who evaluates their state of mind and whether it may be beneficial to seek out some counseling.

Cline said it’s all done anonymously, and he has no idea who’s been taking advantage of what the program offers.

While Cline is happy with what his department has been able to accomplish thus far, a new bill currently working its way through the state Legislature would provide a grant of $1 million to help provide mental health resources to first responders, which could result in more firefighters having access to getting the help they need.

Firefighters like Astin are embracing the new policy.

“As firefighters, we have physical standards that we have to maintain,” he said. “So I think it’s completely appropriate and long overdue that we have mental standards and checkpoints that we do.”

In fact, seeing a therapist is something he’s been doing for a while.

“Even if I’m not feeling particularly stressed or have a particular call, but just going and focusing on my mental health with a therapist really helps,” he said.

According to him, his mental fitness helps him keep his work life from interfering with his job as a dad. And despite all the tough calls, there’s still nowhere else he’d rather be.

“Oh, 100%,” he said. “I wouldn’t change it for anything.”

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