Park City Fire District responds to firefighter’s suicide with increased services
District amps up efforts to address mental health
When Kurt or “Buzz” Peterson, a captain and 17-year veteran with the Park City Fire District, took his own life in February, it forced Chief Paul Hewitt to reexamine the district’s efforts in addressing the mental health of its firefighters.
“With Kurt’s suicide, you can’t help but go through something like that and give this everything you got,” Hewitt said.
Before his death, Peterson had been campaigning for more mental health services and education for Park City’s emergency responders, especially those within the fire district. However, according to Peterson’s wife, Elaine, the stress became too much.
“As firefighters, we rely on each other for debriefing and this is something that none of us really understand well and still didn’t after Kurt’s death,” Hewitt said.
On Monday, Hewitt sat down with The Park Record to discuss the steps the district has taken to address its employees’ mental health since Peterson’s death.
“We have had our employee assistance programs, but they get a bad rap,” Hewitt said. “Even before Kurt’s death, we had a man come in and conduct a class about how to deal with your stress and mental health.”
In recent months, Hewitt said the district has hosted several stress management classes and will soon begin Question Persuade Refer (QPR) training. The district is also establishing a firefighter-specific, crisis-and-suicide hotline, along with a peer support team.
“We are also considering getting an embedded psychologist to make sure we are really understanding this,” Hewitt said. “I saw a lot of stuff as a firefighter working at Station 8 in Salt Lake City and I get it. We see horrendous accidents and have adults die in our care and we rely on each other to destress.”
All of the stations within Park City’s district have large posters advertising the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, in addition to local resources that are available. Hewitt said the district will also be conducting a survey to better understand the services firefighters want.
“I’m curious to know if they would call a designated peer support counselor or if they would use an embedded psychologist,” Hewitt said. “Most firefighters know there is help out there, it’s just a matter of them taking advantage of what is available to them.”
Jeff Dill, founder and CEO of the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance and retired fire captain based in Anthem, Arizona, blamed “cultural brainwashing” for the lack of discussion among firefighters about their mental health.
“When you start at fire academy you are taught to understand fires and accidents, and yet we never talk about behavioral health issues,” Dill said. “That is the brainwashing that we are not attacking.”
Dill, who was in the fire service for 26 years, became involved in understanding firefighter behavioral health as a battalion chief after Hurricane Katrina.
“Numerous guys came back to me and said they saw some horrific things, but when they went to their counselors, they just didn’t understand our language and our culture so they never went back,” Dill said. “I decided to go back and get my master’s degree and become a counselor. Since then, we have been doing workshops and training counselors and chaplains about anxiety and stress.”
Dill said he then began receiving phone calls from all over the world about firefighter suicide and realized no organization, including the National Fire Academy, kept data. Since then Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance has been tracking and verifying firefighter and emergency medical services.
The organization has verified 991 incidents nationwide, Dill said. Last year, 136 firefighters and emergency responders committed suicide.
“I have spent years talking to thousands and thousands of firefighters and traveling around the country and we are just now starting to understand how behavioral health is playing a role and every department needs to do the same,” Dill said. “I do this because I love my brothers and sisters and want to make sure we are taking care of them.”
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