Chief Greg Fuller: A firefighter's mental well-being is critical to their ability to perform on a long career

by Greg Fuller - Fire Chief, City of Huntington, WV

The fire service is one of those professions where you are able to make a difference in people's lives – to take really bad situations when people may be suffering and make them better. And you hope people have a better day and a better life because of your involvement.

But firefighting is also a very, very stressful job. You’re always hyper alert and ready for an alarm to come in. You're always anticipating that at the next moment you may be responding to a cardiac arrest. You may be responding to a horrible car accident, a drowning or an incident on the river where someone has become injured on a barge.

Those are things that people in normal society don’t deal with on a daily basis. But firefighters deal with that over and over again. And those stressors build up.

It changes from one minute to the next and it's very necessary to make certain that our firefighters are physically, as well as mentally, capable of doing the job. That’s why it's so important that we address their needs by professionals trained to do that.

Compass Program

Here in Huntington, we have a program called Compass that focuses on the physical and mental wellness of our firefighters. A firefighter's mental well-being is critical to their ability to perform in a long career, to fulfill their career and still be healthy when they reach retirement. We want them to be able to interface effectively with their family and other members of society.

The opioid epidemic in Huntington exacerbated the level of stress and frustration on emergency responders with firefighters assisting the emergency medical service on a daily basis. Just as it had a negative impact on society in general in this area.  Firefighters developed a compassion fatigue. They're sympathetic to the family. And they want to do the right thing. But seeing it over and over again had a negative impact.

The Compass program takes into consideration both physical and mental wellness. The program interfaces with the daily lives of the emergency services providers and gives the fitness coaches insight into what they experience on a daily basis. Having that insight allows them to tailor programs specific to our job duties. They’re able to understand the stressors pressing on firefighters on a daily basis and provide the appropriate care to address those issues.

When you put those two things together,  and you have a focused program whose main goal is the physical and mental wellness of the first responder, you have some excellent results.

Tailoring program to responder needs

One of the things the Compass Program provides us is data based on the feelings and opinions of the first responders. They collect these data and provide us reports that allow us to implement strategic training and policies and procedures that are in line with the needs of the first responders.

For example, recent surveys indicated a need for some officer development training. We’re currently in the process of creating classes on technical report writing and the like that will develop officers at a higher level. Another example was a concern regarding electric and hybrid vehicles. We were able to bring a course from the West Virginia University Fire Service extension that addressed that very issue.

In fact, we mandated that for all responders knowing that this is a significant challenge for the future. Having that knowledge makes that challenge less daunting.

Having the fitness coaches embedded with the firefighters on a daily basis gives them an insight that people may not normally have. Folks develop an image of first responders in their mind – sometimes maybe even from their childhood – that may not actually be accurate.

And it gives them an accurate look at their daily lives, the social aspects as well as the stresses that occur at the time of an alarm, at the time when they're responding.

On the scene and on site

The fitness coaches and the director of the program actually have turnout gear and from time to time ride out with the firefighters as they respond to alarms. By doing that, they offer comfort and peace to the firefighters. And they gain better insight into the types of situations that the firefighters deal with.

Firefighters also are more open to help if they have a relationship with those who are helping them. They've developed a level of trust that they wouldn't otherwise have without that daily interaction.

Firefighters often speak of and sing the accolades of the Compass Program about how great it is and how different it is.

Oftentimes firefighters are curious and want to know about the Compass program and want to better understand how the physical coach works. It gives me great pride to explain we have a master's level exercise physiologist who works with our folks and enables us to incorporate her skills into our recruitment efforts. Right now that physical coach is working with our new recruits to prepare them to take the candidate physical ability test. And we think that'll be a very positive thing for recruitment. And we have the mental fitness coach working to strengthen their mental fitness in preparation for the test, as well. And to prepare them to enter life in the fire station once they’re hired.

Those of us who've been involved in the fire service for a long time understand that we didn't have the depth of knowledge to focus on this 30, 40 years ago. Now, it gives us a comfort level to know we’re addressing these very important aspects of emergency response.  

Recruitment and retention

Programs like Compass that focus on the physical and mental wellness of the firefighters will help our current people become stronger and better in their jobs. Our biggest source of recruitment for people entering the profession is word of mouth of folks who are involved – the current firefighters, the current officers.

 If they are happy in their environment – and they're pleased with what's going on – they will sell service to the community, to young people who may want to get involved and be a part of a family. You’re way more likely to be a part of a happy family than you are a sad and disgruntled family.

My hope for the fire service in general is that it will continue to embrace these programs. This will help bring these issues to the forefront and help us form strategic policies about how we're going to run and operate emergency services. This will also help create an understanding of the importance of these issues across the fire service.

Eventually, these programs will become commonplace and not just unique and here and there.  

Chief Greg Fuller began his career as a volunteer firefighter at a young age. He went to an EMT program before graduating high school and immediately went to paramedic school. He worked as a paramedic and EMS administrator before becoming a career firefighter. He came to the City of Huntington and moved through the civil service ranks, eventually becoming Fire Chief and Director of Emergency Services. In 2009, he retired and went to work for the emergency management division of State Homeland Security. Fuller returned to his former position in Huntington in February 2022.