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From Wildfires To Coronavirus, Estes Park Firefighters Help One Another Cope

Leigh Paterson
Megan Hodde, a volunteer firefighter with the Estes Valley Fire Protection District, remembers being paged to the station after the East Troublesome wildfire jumped the Continental Divide in October.

Meghan Hodde’s red helmet, black boots, gloves and thick, heavy jacket are stored in a locker next to the fire engines and trucks at the station in Estes Park. On this January afternoon, the large bay is quiet and drafty; last October, it was bustling with activity. As a volunteer firefighter with the Estes Valley Fire Protection District, Hodde had rushed to the station at 2 a.m. to change into her wildland gear after the East Troublesome wildfire jumped the Continental Divide, raging towards Estes Park.

“I remember one moment you're feeling anxious and empowered and excited, and the next moment you feel like you want to throw up,” Hodde said.

She remembers waiting in the fire truck later that morning, in the dark, staged near the YMCA, waiting for instructions. Power for part of the town had been shut off. Inside the truck, it was quiet and dark. Outside, the wind was howling.

“I'm so nervous not knowing once we deployed in what we were going to see. Where was the flame front? How intense, how quick was it moving? No idea,” Hodde said. “Is my town going to get taken over by the flames? Am I going to lose my house? Am I going to get to see my kids again? It's pretty intense.”

For Hodde, what followed was a very long day, checking for spot fires and assessing structures. What came later was insomnia, agitation and distraction, all of which are normal struggles for first responders under normal circumstances.

Firefighters, law enforcement and emergency medical technicians routinely witness death, serious injury and property destruction. A body of research suggests first responders struggle with higher-than-average rates of behavioral health issues such as substance abuse, thoughts of self-harm, PTSD and depression. But, this past year has been particularly difficult for firefighters who have faced the dual challenges of a tough fire season and an ongoing pandemic.

‘Everybody was feeling the stress of the pandemic’

“Mental health in the fire service has always been a challenge,” Chief David Wolf explained. “And we know that there will be calls that some people struggle with ... but normally those things come in waves. It doesn’t usually impact the entire service all at once. With 2020, everybody was feeling the stress of the pandemic.”

Leigh Paterson
Chief David Wolf, who heads up the Estes Valley Fire Protection District, says that mental health in the fire service is always a challenge but that this past year has been particularly tough.

As with so much else, early on in the pandemic, Estes Valley Fire Protection District began to cancel in-person events like trainings and group dinners.

“So already, all throughout the summer, people are starting to feel more and more disconnected from each other, which is one of the main reasons that people stick with things like the fire service, that community aspect,’ Wolf said.

On top of that, volunteer firefighters have day jobs. Meghan Hodde, for example, is a 911 dispatcher. Others are doctors, nurses and small business owners.

“So part of what made some of the mental health challenges we were having so difficult is not only the scale of the challenge but the fact that everyone was experiencing them, they were ubiquitous,” Wolf explained. “And then on top of that, also trying to respond to wildfires, trying to respond to other call volumes and keep that up while not knowing how long it's going to last.”

Firefighters support each other

In this department, helping firefighters cope falls to a handful of people, including Brian Schaffer, a volunteer chaplain with the Estes Valley Fire Protection District who also leads the department’s peer support team.

“We're just there to empathize and to say, ‘Hey, I hear you. And wow, sorry that these things are going on,’” Schaffer said.

In addition to Schaffer, the Estes Valley Fire Protection District’s peer support team is comprised of six firefighters and a clinician. They check in with firefighters and their families routinely as well as after critical incidents. They occasionally suggest counseling, which is free of charge. The team, which has been in place for just over one year, has logged around 500 conversations and check-ins, according to Schaffer.

“Many times, part of the healing process of traumatic events is just telling your story to someone and sharing how it made you feel,” Schaffer said. “So we just want to continue to keep everyone healthy and ready for whatever comes next.”

Leigh Paterson
Brian Schaffer, a volunteer chaplain with the Estes Valley Fire Protection District, has to get creative with how he connects with firefighters these days, catching them for a cup of coffee or at their workplace.

Not all departments have the funds for these types of mental health services. According to Wolf, around half of the volunteer fire departments in Larimer County have no peer support team in place.

“They're more likely to need to take every dollar they can to put fuel in the rigs and to buy gear for their members. They don't have the extra budget to do mental health pieces,” Wolf said.

“And so one of the things that I think is a gap in the program and that we're having conversations to figure out how to address is how to get that peer support network expanded.”

Looking ahead to next season

In her role on the peer support team, Megan Hodde says she’s been doing more in-depth check-ins recently with firefighters talking about layoffs and financial troubles related to the pandemic.

“This is this year. We got our masks on, so we’ve captured this moment in time,” Hodde said, pointing to the firefighters posing in matching blue masks for the department’s most recent photo.

Because of ongoing coronavirus restrictions, her peer support work is more difficult.

“Now you just have to stand back that six feet distance. ‘How are you doing?’ And it's hard. You read their body language or their eyes and, you know, something's wrong. And you just want to put your hand on the shoulder — hug them. You can't do it,’ Hodde explained.

The situation is starting to improve: firefighters have begun to get vaccinated, and the peer support team is bringing on a few new members. Megan Hodde is looking forward to learning how to drive and operate the fire truck, known as an ‘apparatus.’ The Estes Valley Fire Protection District is thinking about the next fire season; their first wildland training session is scheduled to be in-person, but socially distanced, in March.

As KUNC's mental health reporter, I seek to create a sense of urgency and understanding around issues related to mental illness, access to care and happiness in Northern Colorado and our mountain communities.
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