Cal Fire program helping firefighters cope with trauma

Losing your home and everything in it is a traumatic life-changing experience. Imagine being a firefighter witnessing firsthand home after home being ravaged by flames. Think of the more than 3,500 firefighters on the front lines of the Caldor Fire.

Sometimes the physical and emotional toll is too much for anyone to process.

"There are particular telltale signs. Folks that may come off the line, and they have that thousand-yard stare. There's a lot of suicidal ideation," said Michael Ming with Cal Fire's employee support services.

And for decades, little was done to help firefighters manage their dark thoughts. In 2010, there were 50 firefighter suicides reported nationwide. In 2019, 123 firefighters took their own lives.

"The culture is basically, pull yourself up by your boot straps and get back out there," said therapist Jill Gustafson.

Gustafson and Ming are part of a team working to change that culture - and they are seeing success.

Cal Fire's Behavioral Health and Wellness Program got its start in 1999 but wasn't expanded to its current capacity until just two to three years ago. Today, its staffed by 27 people and mobile units that bring mental health and wellness support services to the firefighters on the front lines.

"The younger firefighters that are coming in onboard with us today. They have more of an acceptance to the training and the education," Ming said.

Services include one-on-one cognitive behavioral therapy, EMDR, a mindfulness-based therapy, but also yoga, equine and canine therapy.
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