SPECIAL REPORT: The impact of repeated exposure to trauma on firefighters

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Mental health awareness in the workforce is growing, especially in male-dominated professions like the fire service.

In the second report of a three-part series, KNWA spoke to firefighters with the Rogers Fire Department to learn about the impact of repeated trauma on firefighters.

There’s a reason why people join the fire service. And, many will tell you, they are not the same person they were when they started.

“There’s never two days the same,” said John Bobholz with the Rogers Fire Department. “You’re constantly being challenged by the calls you run on. You get to do good things. You get front row seat to some awful things.” 

Bobholz said some of the toughest calls are ones involving children, death and suicide.

“The trauma and graphic nature of all those calls is something that nobody needs to see and you can’t unsee that stuff,” he said.

“That’s the stuff that carries with you and sends you off in a dark place,” said Aaron Box with the Rogers Fire Department. “It’s the kind of thing that will change you and you’ve got to have some healthy coping mechanism do deal with it. It’s stuff that you will remember for the rest of your life.” 

They are tragic memories that weigh heavy on firefighter’s hearts and minds.

“If you are a person in the public and you think of the worst thing you’ve ever seen or experienced and then think about how that impacted you as an individual,” said Cliff Thompson with the Rogers Fire Department. “And then, think about going to work every day and seeing that three to four to five times every time you go to work.”

The repeated exposure to trauma impacts firefighters. PTSD, depression and suicide are at an all time high. But, the symptoms are often times nearly impossible to see.

“We are supposedly indestructible and are able to handle this stuff,” said Bobholz. “If you can get a fireman, a police office or a military person to talk about their feelings and what’s keeping them up at night or what’s bothering them, you’re a better person than me.”

“Nothing will break me,” said Box. “I am the one that fixes things. I am not the problem. I refuse to be the problem. And, I won’t admit if there is a problem.”

That mentality is a part of the prominent stigma around mental health in the fire service. But, it’s a conversation that needs to be brought to the forefront.

“I don’t know if anything has changed in the fire service at all over the years,” said Thompson. “I think now there is just a heightened awareness and people are starting to take notice that this does impact people.”

While the stigma surrounding mental health is evolving, there is still a long way to go.

“It’s not a technical thing you can throw dollars at or we can buy a widget to make it better,” said Thompson. “If we can’t change people’s attitudes and get them to change their mindset, it’s never going to change.”

There are 132 sworn firefighters in the City of Rogers. You can learn more about the Rogers Fire Department here.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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Aaron Nolan is a morning show co-host in Little Rock, Arkansas with Nexstar Media Group's KARK-TV. He has a passion for social media and makes it an important part of his daily routine. Click here to read Aaron's full bio.

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