'The Burnout Is Here': Firefighters Struggle As COVID Takes A Toll

Firefighters wait in an open field as flames make their way across a hillside during the Apple fire last week. (Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images)

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By the time December rolls around, it's not uncommon for California firefighters to feel burned out, especially in recent years.

Months of battling unrelenting fires in brutally hot, dry, and windy conditions, can leave them physically and mentally wrecked. It's only the rainy season that can offer some respite — assuming it shows up at all.

This year, the burnout has come early.

"Nevermind October, November, this September. The burnout is here right now," said Gad Amith, Battalion Chief of Emergency Medical Services with Cal Fire Riverside.

In a candid conversation, Amith said it's not just the very active fire season that his crews are contending with, but fears and frustrations related to COVID-19.

"People are worried about their families. They're worried about being exposed. About getting sick. It creates behavioral challenges. Nothing about this is easy," he said.

In between fighting fires, firefighters get called out on emergencies, which means constant interaction with the public in the middle of a pandemic.

Now, even on routine calls, they have to don full PPE, decontaminate when they arrive back at the station, and then stay separated from colleagues who they spend their 72 hour — and sometimes longer — shifts with. They've got to remain masked at all times, eat separately, and sleep in different quarters. And there are certainly no visits from family or friends to break up the monotony and let out stress.

A HIGH TOLL

"The reality is the stress load they face increases their risk for burnout and increases their risk for PTSD in a substantial way," said Dr. Suzy Bird Gulliver, a psychologist and the director of the Warriors Research Institute of Baylor, Scott, and White Health.

"All of the things that you try to do to help with mental health around disaster are exponentially harder to do during this pandemic," said Gulliver. "You want to promote calming. You want to promote connectedness. You want to promote accurate information. Those three things alone are challenging to do during this pandemic. And that's the place I think that our firefighters are struggling so much, because the places that they normally go for calming are no longer available to them."

These mental health challenges can have big implications.

Firefighters suffer from PTSD at higher rates than the general population.

Amith, who said they've been planning for how to handle COVID-19 since February, told me recently:

"I was at several of our stations today visiting some of the folks and some of the guys said they don't see the light at the end of the tunnel any longer. And that's kind of a pretty common point being made."

Like Gulliver, he said he's concerned about a rise in cases of PTSD in firefighters because of all the additional challenges everyone is facing this year.

Amith said captains are making the rounds through Cal Fire Riverside stations, trying to keep an open dialogue and let firefighters vent. It's part of stepped up efforts to check in on how their crews are holding up.

"We have a lot of our firefighters that suffer from an anxiety because of this. And you know, some of them are seeking help. We have programs designed to help people with emotional problems. With stress on the job. And a lot of our guys are seeking that kind of help right now because it's having an impact," he said.

NO GOOD OPTIONS

Like the rest of California, the number of positive cases amongst Cal Fire members is growing. Just this week 18 tested positive and 80 people are quarantined as a result of possible exposure.

In the coming months the Santa Winds will arrive, which is typically when we see the largest fires of the year.

"I gotta tell you, by the time we get there, time wise, our guys are going to be tired and worn out. They're going to be out to lunch. It's going to be tough. I'm not looking forward to it," said Amith.

"There are no good choices. No good options. Everything is difficult, but you know what can I tell you? The world has changed in the last five months and we have to change with it. And so, we are having to make some very difficult choices."


FOR ANYONE FEELING OVERWHELMED. HERE'S HOW TO ASK FOR HELP

If You Need Immediate Help
If you or someone you know is in crisis and need immediate help, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or go here for online chat.
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