Glendale Fire Department’s Peer Support Team

Above, members of the Glendale Fire Department’s Peer Support Team are trained to reach out to emergency responders showing signs of stress or depression. Left, Dr. Tania Glenn, who specializes in PTSD, trains the Peer Support Team.

They save your homes. 

When a call comes in about a raging fire, they jump in the engine, race to the scene, blast water hoses into the flames and battle to keep a home from burning down.

“That’s what we train for—that’s the exciting part of our job,” said Ashley Losch, of the Glendale Fire Department.

But those are the rare calls. For the most part, firefighters are the last line of defense, fighting to keep people from crossing over from life to death. 

Glendale firefighters do CPR on infants pulled from pools, plug gushing gunshot wounds and cut teenagers out of car wrecks.

“And then we’re holding their hand on the way to the hospital while they’re asking us not to let them die,” Losch said.

For decades, the mentality in Glendale was the same as at fire departments around the country: If you can’t take the tough calls, go get an office job.

Recently, Glendale firefighters are warming to a new mentality: You can’t be a hero if you’ve got your own problems.

Firefighters are being taught to fight for their own mental health.

The Glendale Fire Department is one of the busiest fire departments in the state, with more than 44,000 calls per year—that’s about 120 calls each day. Many are routine—trash-can fires, twisted ankles and false alarms. Others are so traumatic as to land deep in the psyche, putting firefighters at a greater risk for depression, post-trauamtic stress disorder (PTSD) and suicide. 

A recent study found the number of firefighters who died by suicide was greater than the number of firefighters who died on the job.

September is Suicide Prevention Month, which reminds Glendale firefighters about their department’s peer support and counseling program.

Last year, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona assisted the Glendale Fire Department with a grant to create the peer support program, training 20 firefighters on how to recognize trauma and approach colleagues who have experienced trauma.

The grant also provided funds for an on-staff doctor—PTSD specialist Dr. Tania Glenn—who is available to meet with firefighters and their families when they need further support. The program teaches emergency responders to recognize when they may be experiencing symptoms of PTSD and encourages them to reach out for help.

An introduction Glenn gave the firefighters was all Losch’s brain needed to pull up long-buried trauma.

“She pointed out things that were PTSD that I didn’t recognize—I was holding on to things,” said Losch, who has been with the Glendale Fire Department for 20 years.

 

The worst call

Her normal answer is “you don’t want to know” when people ask her, “What’s the worst call you’ve ever been on?”

But that worst-call-ever came to mind in one of Dr. Glenn’s trainings.

“A father shot two of his kids while they were sleeping in bed and then shot himself. And he videotaped the whole thing,” Losch recalled.

The murder-suicide had just been committed when Losch was called to the scene.

“I had to write up a report for these babies that were dead in their beds,” she said.

 After she got back to the station, her fellow firefighters asked her if she was OK. “Yeah, I’m fine, I’m fine,” Losch answered, shrugging it off.

“This was years ago. I thought I was fine,” she said.

But Glenn’s training brought the call back, with all its chilling details. Losch realized she wasn’t all right.

“This was 10 years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday. (Glenn) tells us it’s not OK. You have to be able to let go of those images,” Losch said. 

“You go home to your family and friends and don’t talk about it, you don’t want to burden it—you don’t want to put those images into your loved one’s heads. That’s a burden for them.

“But I can talk to another firefighter about it. They get it.”

Losch reached out and started talking to a member of the new Peer Support Team, which was trained by Glenn.

Losch was not the only one, as up to a quarter of the fire department personnel has utilized the team in the last year.

Perhaps only morticians see more death than firefighters, which often takes a toll.

“I had a friend the other day say, ‘I think I’m done. I can’t see any more dead bodies.’ I said, ‘You need to talk to someone,’” Losch said.

The horrific calls never end. 

Recently, a family was out for a bike ride when a car plowed into them. The death scene was so gruesome that a veteran captain “was so shaken he couldn’t write the report,” Losch said.

“Everyone gets to that point: I don’t want to see dead people anymore. ...

“No one calls us because they’re having a party,” she added. “They call because something bad is happening. The only joyous thing is delivering babies—I love that. That is the greatest thing about this job.”

Other than that, the job is responding to heart attacks, nasty wrecks, gunshot wounds and the occasional house fire.

When she started her career, Losch said it was still “the good ol’ boys” mentality. “We’re fine—this is what we signed up for. You can’t handle it, get out of here,” Losch reflected. 

“But we’re not robots. If you deal with (trauma) in a healthy way, you can have a  long career. If you don’t deal with it in a healthy way, it will destroy you and your career. And probably your family.”