Philadelphia Fire Department expands mental-health resources for firefighters, first responders

     The first

    The first "Stress First Aid" training session coincidentally occurred one day after the Center City building collapse.(Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY)

    Philadelphia’s Fire Department is expanding its resources for first responders coping with emotional stress related to their work.

    Efforts to launch a program called “Stress First Aid” in Philadelphia have been underway for some time, but coincidentally, the first major training took place just one day after the Center City building collapse.

    The collapse highlights the need for more mental health resources for firefighters, says Henry Costo, Deputy Comissioner of the Philadelphia Fire Department and Executive Chief for Health and Safety.

    First responders pulled 13 injured people out of the rubble, but also recovered the bodies of six people who were killed when the building fell down.

    Costo says in addition to catastrophic events, daily stress wears away at members of the force.

    “We lost three firefighters in line of duty deaths and we’ve also experienced three suicides in that same time frame,” he said about the past 14 months.

    What the program does

    The “Stress First Aid” program trains staff to recognize symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

    It also trains people who can provide immediate assistance on site during a crisis, but also a network of resources for ongoing outreach, if needed.

    Jennifer Taylor, a public-health professor at Drexel University, has been involved with the program, which she says casts a wide net.

    “It’s not just the city or the fire department taking care of its own. It’s all of us,” she explained. “It’s clergy, it’s community groups, it’s people who are no longer in the fire service, but know what it’s like, coming back in and embracing the people who are currently doing the work.”

    Fire Department officials say the program expands resources currently available for first responders, and allows for an individualized approach.

    For example, if a struggling firefighter is religious, they could be connected to a clergy member who has been trained in the “Stress First Aid” program, or could choose to speak to a retired firefighter instead.

    “I may not be a person of faith or religion and the message from the retired firefighter who lost two people in line of duty deaths, his message may resonate better with me,” Costo explained.

    More training sessions have been scheduled for upcoming months with the goal of providing every member of the fire department with some level of training.

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