Ending the stigma: Swatara Township Fire Department offers firefighters mental health help

SWATARA TOWNSHIP, DAUPHIN COUNTY, Pa. - Many firefighters are struggling with mental health. A survey by the International Association of Firefighters found more than 80 percent of firefighters felt asking for help would make them seem weak or unfit for duty. A recent study also shows firefighters are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty.

"They see things that most people in their lifetime will not see," said Swatara Township Fire Chief Mike Ibberson.

Ibberson knows first hand how hard it can be to mentally process what first responders see.

"I had some issues from a call of my own," said Ibberson. "And we didn't have anything, we weren't providing anything to our firefighters."

It was that call that led him to bring help to his firefighters. The department, now one of the first in the area to begin an employee assistance program/peer support program, providing their members with services to turn to when the trauma from calls becomes too overwhelming.

"It's an honor for us to know that we are creating something for our people that is going to, at the end of the day potentially save a life," said Brenden Orth, Health and Safety Chief with Swatara Township Fire.

In recent years, none of the department's firefighters have died by suicide, but they have struggled with retention. Ibberson hopes this program will keep his 70 firefighters mentally healthy, leading to higher retention rates.

"Realistically when we sit down and think about it, how many people have we lost over the past 20 years who may have experienced a bad call and we didn't provide them help," asked Ibberson. "And they just show up, go on the call and then you never see them again."

It is believed that the statistics for firefighters who die by suicide are extremely under-reported. The Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance estimates only about 40 percent of firefighter suicides are reported.

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