Firefighters and emergency medical technicians get called to assist people at difficult, even traumatizing, times.

That’s why it’s important they have someone they can talk to about work-related stressors as well as personal issues that could impede their work and overall well-being.

“We go on a lot of tough, tough calls and see a lot of difficult things,” said Burlington Fire Department Lt. T.J. Barrett.

Some calls stand out as particularly difficult: the unexpected death of a child, suicides, car accidents and drug overdoses. Others might not have the same visual impact but are difficult nonetheless, like the chronic threats of suicide that one person makes.

Some days Barrett wonders if he has helped anyone get a good outcome.

“I pray all the time for me, for the [emergency] crew and for the victims,” he said. “We go to no-win calls and can’t make things better, and all you have is prayer.”

For Barrett, who grew up in St. Johnsbury and still calls Corpus Christi Parish there his home parish, having a priest and a clinician available to the department is integral to maintaining mental health.

Father Dallas St. Peter, pastor of St. Mark Church in Burlington’s New North End, serves as the fire department’s chaplain, and Beth Jacobs, a parishioner of Holy Family/St. Lawrence Parish in Essex Junction, is the contracted clinician with the fire department. They are available to support members of the department who seek help with dealing with both work-related and personal issues.

Besides visiting each of the five fire stations each month, they sometimes ride in the ambulance or fire truck when the department goes on a call.

When Jacobs is at a station or on a call, it’s not her “natural” environment, so she can feel uncomfortable, but the firefighters and EMT’s make her comfortable. And when they go to her office, at first they might not feel comfortable, she puts them at ease, often using Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, a therapy that helps facilitate healing from traumatic memories.

“I am here because of God,” she said, noting that because her husband is a police officer she would have expected to be working with a police department rather than a fire department. But one of her first clients in private practice was a firefighter who recommended her to colleagues.

Barrett has found help with Jacobs, saying that “you start at square one and the ball rolls” for help even with calls “your mind has turned off.”

Both she and Father St. Peter are easy to talk to, he said.

Yet firefighters and police officer have sometimes been reticent to seek help dealing with the trauma of their jobs or with personal issues. Barrett said a previous generation of such public servants were World War II veterans and were accustomed to an attitude of “be tough, don’t think about it, go to the next call.”

But bottling issues up can be detrimental to mental health, so “we have changed the old way of thinking,” he said. “What Beth and the department have done in the last few years is help us talk about bad calls and think about what is bothering us” as a way to maintain balance. “This new age is much more educated about mental health,” he added. “The department has jumped on board with ‘let’s take care of each other properly’ and have people like Beth and Father Dallas available when you’re having a tough time.”

Father St. Peter tries to be a foundation for the firefighters, someone they trust, can ask questions about faith and life and a non-judgmental presence. He is available to pray with them and help them grow closer in their relationship with God if that’s what they seek.

“What’s most important about being a chaplain is being present,” he added.

He acknowledges the care, compassion and patience the firefighters show to those they meet on calls, even if the treatment is not reciprocal. So when he reflects on how they care about those they serve, it helps him with his own ministry to people.

“These are amazing people,” Jacobs said of the 80-member department. “I want the fire department to feel comforted and reassured we are here for them so they can serve everyone. They are brave and skilled people.”

 

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