With firefighter PTSD in focus, KCFD shows how mental health for its organization is a top priority

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The emotional stress of seeing death and destruction on a daily basis can take a toll on our firefighters. Now the suicide of a fire chief in Florida has shined a brighter light on the problem.

Vero Beach Battalion Chief David Dangerfield was well-known in his community and well-liked by his fellow firefighters, yet he was struggling on the inside.

Dangerfiled posted this message on Facebook before taking his own life in October:

On Friday FOX 4 talked about the issue with the Kansas City Fire Department, which said providing mental health help to its employees is at the top of its priority list.

KCFD offers a slew of resources and programs for its firefighters so no one ever has to feel alone or hopeless.

The department has offered mental health support programs for decades, but a KCFD spokesperson said it wasn’t until a fatal fire last year that the department began offering more treatment programs.

It was a massive multi-story blaze that Kansas City firefighters battled for hours – a suspected arson that claimed the lives of Larry Leggio and John Mesh when a wall collapsed on them near Independence Avenue and Prospect Avenue last October.

“There`s nobody in this organization who was not touched personally by what happened on Oct. 12, 2015,” said Richard Gist, KCFD's deputy director.

Gist said the department began working immediately on ways it could help its firefighters get through an extremely tough time.

“A lot of things were put together to make sure people had access to all kinds of help,” he said. “[Ensuring] there were providers who were ready to help our people and that people were very active in reaching out for the things they needed and utilizing them.”

From employee assistance programs, to counselors and peer support training – they made sure to provide anything that made firefighters feel more comfortable coming forward with their mental health struggles as a result of their job.

“We did lots of things,“ Gist said. “We`re still doing lots of things… We made it through a year but it`s a long process to heal and recover from that.”

Although Gist said he believes suicide rates among firefighters are difficult to determine, the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance estimates nearly 30 percent of the nation's 1.3 million firefighters suffer from PTSD.

It’s a topic that's gaining more attention in the wake of Dangerfield’s suicide.

“They’re involved in a lot of things that are very difficult, sometimes personally threatening,” Gist said.

“They’re involved with people at the most trying moments of their lives. They carry a lot of weight from those scenes with them and carry it around with them throughout their career.”

It's a reality that makes mental health help a priority at Kansas City fire stations, as the department supports those who each day put their lives on the line for us.

“They make a pledge on the day they come onto this job, that whatever it is that you face, no matter how difficult it is for them, or what risk it puts to them, they’re going to put themselves between you and that problem,” Gist said.

He continued, “This is our attempt on your behalf as a community to make sure that the people who do that for you have all the support we can give them to live a happy and productive life doing this important job.”

Gist said another defense against mental health problems in our fire stations is the close bonds firefighters forge with one another.

He cited a study released last year by Florida State University that shows the strong connections firefighters have with their coworkers is what often helps them get through each day on the job.