In the Wake of Flames: UA Researcher Helping Firefighters Cope With Tragedy

Firefighters must face and cope with tragic events such as the injury or death of colleagues in their line of work. UA researchers in collaboration with the Tucson Fire Department have been awarded a UA Community Connections grant to develop a system to help firefighters adjust after critical incidences.
July 2, 2013

A University of Arizona mental health researcher is working with the Tucson Fire Department to develop a system to help firefighters cope with tragic events such as the injury or loss of colleagues.

The project aims to prepare firefighters to deal not only with large-scale events such as the Yarnell Hill Fire, but also stressful calls that occur during their everyday line of work. 

Patricia Haynes, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the UA and director of the UA Stress and Trauma Recovery Clinic, is collaborating with Jeff Burgess, division director and professor in the Community, Environment and Policy Division of the UA's Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, and with Capt. John Gulotta, safety captain of the Tucson Fire Department and Chris Don, a firefighter in the Tucson Fire Department.

Gulotta said he believes the project has the opportunity to affect policies on a national level.

The researchers' goal is to train a team of Tucson firefighters to help their colleagues deal with the emotional and psychological stress of tragic situations such as the injury or death of colleagues. The group is known as the Peer Operational Support Team, or POST.

"It's a team of firefighters that I would say are particularly talented in terms of dealing with mental health," said Haynes, who studies post-traumatic stress disorder and is well-respected in her field. "Also, they're well-accepted among their peers."

"The goal of the program is to make sure that our firefighters are not only healthy and safe but also mentally prepared for the situations they may face, to help the community," Gulotta said. "We want to be prepared call by call," he added, and everyone's response to a situation is different.

"Those that have kids may be affected by calls where kids are involved. Those that are involved in gruesome or gory incidents may be affected. Each one of us has our own hinges in our armor. We want to make sure we are able to process each one of these on an individual basis and be able to move on so that we can be mentally and physically prepared for the job and the next call."

A system, termed Critical Incident Stress Management, or CISM, existed to help firefighters cope with these events, Haynes said. However, this practice is no longer recommended based on reports issued by the National Institutes for Mental Health and the National Fallen Firefighter Foundation.

To find a better alternative to the CISM system, Gulotta partnered with Haynes and the UA to develop a program that would more effectively prepare emergency first responders to deal with the emotional and psychological aspects of traumatic situations.

The grant from UA Community Connections is a starting block for the project, he said, which will help train POST members on evidence-based ways of dealing with stress.

"Right after highly stressful incidents, the goal is to address basic needs, promote a sense of calming and allow choices to help regain a sense of control," Haynes said. "It's also helpful for people to know they're not alone in their response. Firefighters actually do a lot of their own therapy around the kitchen table. This is why an individualized program is ideal."

"They're first responders to a scene," she added, speaking of the Tucson team. "If something were to happen in the city where firefighters were injured or lost their lives, our team would be deployed to help their colleagues cope with the stress of the situation."

Thirty days later, POST members would check in with those involved in the critical incident and administer a more formalized risk assessment of whether individuals were in danger of developing post-traumatic stress disorder or depression.

The time period will give individuals a chance to adjust and recover naturally from a traumatic event, Haynes said.

"In the first 30 days after critical incidences, like for instance Yarnell Hill, it's normal to have a lot of reactions such as sleep loss and nightmares. And it's also normal have no reaction or to be angry. It's important to let the natural recovery process unfold."

"We can't change the channel," Gulotta added. "If an event goes on TV and you think it is too gory you can change the channel. We don’t have that option. We're going to go through with it and take care of the situation and we need to make sure we're prepared to deal with all aspects of it."