Behavioral health of firefighters and first responders tested in traumatic disasters like Camp Fire

SAN JOSE, Calif. (KGO) -- Hundreds of firefighters and first responders are still working to suppress raging Camp Fire flames. The men and women on the front lines are also tasked with finding and recovering those who are still missing.

It's a tough job, taken on by even tougher people. However, those we regard as heroes aren't immune to the impacts of devastation.

While many of us see the smoke and understand the source, we could never know the devastation of the Camp Fire the way victims, first responders or firefighters know it.

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"They're seeing things that are horrific," Menlo Park Fire District Chief Harold Schapelhouman said. "The kind of things you don't want anyone to have to see and they're dealing with that."

Throughout his firefighting career, Chief Schapelhouman has responded to some of the Nation's major disasters. He's taken part in the recovery effort following the Oklahoma City bombing, Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, among other events.

He acknowledged that talking about these traumatic disasters can sometimes be difficult.

Jeff Dill explained silence can be most detrimental to the behavioral health of those on the front lines.

Dill is the CEO and founder of Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance (FBHA). The Alliance's mission is to collaborate, develop and implement behavioral health awareness, prevention, intervention, and post crisis strategies to provide firefighters with an easily accessible and confidential source of information.

It is also the first resource to track and validate firefighter and first responder suicides across the country.

In a Skype interview with ABC7 News, Dill explained we must remember the men and women we regard as "heroes," are in fact human.

"We always had this belief in the fire service," he said. "That you put this uniform on, you act brave, strong, courageous. You give help, don't ask for help. That we handle all issues on our own."

However, FBHA found a variety of issues has led to more firefighter suicides every year, than line-of-duty deaths.

"Now we're starting to find out through tracking suicides and other issues, that we're having a lot of problems," Dill said. "Depressions, addictions, anxiety and stress. And of course, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder."

He said these are real-life consequences that have only recently become part of the conversation.

"Somebody's got to do it. It's a dirty job, but somebody's got to go in and do this work," Chief Schapelhouman said. "Law enforcement, fire, coroners office-- all those folks who are in there doing a very difficult job, and they don't want praise or accolades for it."

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Schapelhouman continued, "They feel like that's their part of what needs to happen next. So we can get back to normalcy. Even though the new normal is not going to look the same again."

Fortunately, Chief Schapelhouman said there are far more resources available to firefighters today, than when he first started as a firefighter.

Still, he acknowledged seeking help is still a challenge for many.

See more stories, photos and videos on the Camp Fire in Butte County.
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