New Hampshire Official Wants Evaluation of Firefighters’ Mental Health

"There are a lot of other pressures that we haven't experienced before."
(Manchester Fire Department)

Alderman seeks independent firm to look
at systemic stressors

Paul Feely, The New Hampshire Union Leader, Manchester

(MCT)

Jan. 17—ALDERMAN JIM ROY wants the city to hire an independent firm to evaluate the fire department to determine whether “systemic stressors” are adversely affecting first responders’ mental health.

Roy, a retired Manchester firefighter, has discussed the idea with some fellow aldermen and fire officials, following the death of several department members last year.

“The fire service has changed considerably over the last 10 years,” Roy said. “There are a lot of other pressures that we haven’t experienced before. They’re dealing with mental health patients all the time, and I think it’s a whole different animal than when I was out here putting the wet stuff on the red stuff.”

“I know the department’s doing a great job with peer support and having counselors come in, but I’m looking at a different aspect,” he said. “I’m not looking at the personal interactions and trying to help people. I want to look at the department as a whole, and the whole system and see if there are any systemic triggers that would affect the mental of responders.”

Roy said after he began discussing the idea, one person called him wondering whether this was an attack on the department.

“It’s not an attack ,” he said. “Our employees are our greatest resource, and I want to make sure we take care of them. I think there’s a lot of stress involved, not only with the pandemic but with the opioid crisis that we have right now.”

City fire chief Dan Goonan said he isn’t opposed to the idea.

“He is right, we do have a changing agency,” Goonan said. “And certainly organizations like ours for years have dealt with problems, not only mental health but chronic alcoholism, those types of things and other stress-related issues. I think this would be a good thing to take a look.”

Goonan said his department has been in contact with Nicole Sawyer, a psychologist and clinical director of the Professional Fire Fighters of New Hampshire Peer Team.

“After these tragic incidents we’ve had we have taken a look at what we’re doing now and is it enough, and what are we missing,” Goonan said. “She’s a specialist in this area. I spoke with her myself, we’ve had a couple meetings. I asked her to put together some ideas of what she feels could help, maybe put together a program just to really take a look at the department and see what we’re missing, if we’re missing anything, if what we’re doing is enough or could we do better.”

“I do agree with Alderman Roy…the guys are our most important asset and anything we do for them would be excellent,” Goonan said.

Brian Paquette, president of Manchester Professional Firefighters Association Local 856, was in agreement.

“We are facing such a different atmosphere with how fire service is now,” Paquette said. “Dr. Sawyer has worked with fire and police departments, and has developed a wonderful program in it with four phases that will not only let us get help to the members, but in phase 2 start to evaluate what is happening and what the department is doing right and wrong.”

Roy will work to narrow the focus of his proposal before bringing it back for discussion. He said he’s not necessarily interested in what the department does following a stressful event.

“I’m not looking to treat people after it happens,” Roy said. “I want to look at the operation of the fire department to see if there’s anything there that triggers stresses for mental health. Not just a program, it’s an in-depth look at what might trigger it. That’s what I’m looking for with this.”

Paul Feely is the City Hall reporter for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. Reach him at pfeely@unionleader.com.

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