Keys to Mental Health Support for Cloquet Firefighters and Paramedics – Cloquet Pine Journal

CLOQUET — Jesse Buhs, Chief of Fire District for the Cloquet area, delivered an impassioned speech to the board during a meeting on Wednesday, November 16, about the need for continued mental health support for rescue workers.

“In the profession (fire and emergency services), we’ve seen an increase in our responders seeking help about the mental health impact of our work,” he said.

Buhs’ statement was prompted by recent serious events that district staff have been called to, as well as a meeting with rural ambulance providers in Duluth where mental health was a key concern.

He clarified that he felt he had the support of the board but wanted to bring that to the fore with board members.

According to Buhs, responders receive a variety of calls, from fatal car accidents to drug overdoses, homicides and more. Having to respond to all of these calls can have an amplifying effect on the responder.

“A lot of people assume you don’t see things like that in rural communities,” he said. “We still see everything I listed; these are all personal experiences.”

First responders face post-traumatic stress issues from having to make numerous calls throughout their careers, as well as ‘compassion fatigue’.

“You’re so connected to all of these incidents … You have to give so much of yourself to handle those calls that you eventually burn out,” he said.

Buhs compared working in the emergency services to a person watching battles in war. Although he said he wasn’t comparing the experience, the cumulative effect of trauma and death is just as significant.

The district currently has offers for employees through its employee assistance program or even less formal activities such as a “tailboard debrief,” where responders gather behind the fire truck to discuss a more serious call.

Looking ahead, Buhs said he has a few ideas on his 2023 agenda, including updating the station alert system for calls and waking responders during their rest periods, and a vehicle exhaust system for the building so fumes can be removed from the vehicle bay.

As of now, Buhs said, those in the station will also need to hear calls for things outside of their coverage area, which can strain hearing calls for help during a shift. He said the proposed alert system would limit it to calls that the district must respond to.

Buhs said improving employees’ overall mental health will also help with recruitment and retention.

“I’ve seen a lot of people change careers or retire early because of it,” he said.

Buhs also wants to strengthen the mental health education component so employees understand how to help others and even when to seek additional help for themselves.

Buhs said he wants to start working on improvements soon before he begins to see how mental health is affecting his employees.

“My goal is to give our people a long life so they can stay healthy and retire and enjoy retirement,” he said.

Board Chair Linda Way thanked Buhs for his comments and asked what the board could do to support district workers.

“This is the reality of fire and rescue workers in this day and age,” she said.

Buhs said the best the board can do is continue to support its efforts to overcome the challenges.

Board member Sheila Lamb commended Buhs for speaking out on the issue, as she knows it’s not easy to debate.

“This has been an ongoing problem with a lack of mental health (support). I know some paramedics who are still following a lot of it 40 years later,” she said.

Lamb said that neglecting mental health can lead not only to burnout but also to addiction, suicide and domestic violence.

Way added that this is a reality for the ministry and said the board will try to support the district in any way they can.

“We support you and we support the employees,” she said.

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