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Mental health support key for Cloquet firefighters, paramedics

Cloquet Area Fire District Chief Jesse Buhs said staff respond to calls including fatal car crashes, fires, murders and more, all of which have lasting effects on the responders.

Cloquet Area Fire District headquarters
Cloquet Area Fire District Headquarters.
Jamey Malcomb / 2020 file / Pine Journal
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CLOQUET — Cloquet Area Fire District Chief Jesse Buhs gave a passionate speech to the board about the need for continued mental health support to emergency services personnel, during a Wednesday, Nov. 16, meeting.

"In the (fire and emergency medical services) profession we have seen an increase in our responders seeking help for the mental health impacts of what we do," he said.

Buhs' statement was prompted by recent severe events the district's staff have been called to, as well as a meeting with rural ambulance providers in Duluth where mental health was a main issue.

He clarified that he felt he had the backing of the board, but wanted to bring it to the forefront of board members minds.

Buhs said responders get a wide variety of calls, from fatal car crashes, to drug overdoses, murders and much more. Having to respond to all those calls can have a compounding effect on the responder.

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"A lot of folks assume you don't see those types of things in rural communities," he said. "We still see everything I listed off; those are all from personal experiences."

First responders face post traumatic stress issues from having to go on numerous calls throughout their careers as well as "compassion fatigue."

"You are so intimately connected with all of these incidents ... you have to give so much of yourself to manage these calls that at some point you burnout," he said.

Buhs likened working in EMS to a person seeing combat in war. While he said he would not compare the experience, the cumulative effect of traumas and death is as significant.

The district currently has offerings for staff through its employee assistance program, or even less formal activities like a "tailboard debriefing," which Buhs said is when responders will gather at the back of the fire engine to go over a more severe call.

Moving forward, Buhs said he has a couple of ideas on his agenda for 2023, which include updating the station alerting system for both calls and waking up responders during their rest period, and a vehicle exhaust system for the building so fumes can be removed from the vehicle bay.

As of now, Buhs said those in the station have to hear calls for things even outside of their coverage area, which can be taxing listening to calls for help throughout a shift. He said the proposed alerting system would limit it to calls that the district needs to respond to.

Buhs said improving the overall mental health of staff will also help with recruitment and retention.

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"I have seen a lot of folks make career changes, or retire early because of it," he said.

Buhs would also like to bolster the education component of mental health as well, so staff can understand how to help others and even when they should seek additional assistance for themselves.

Starting work on improvements is something Buhs said he wants to do soon, before he starts to see mental health impact his staff.

"My goal is to get the longevity out of our folks so they remain healthy and they can retire and enjoy retirement," he said.

Board Chair Linda Way thanked Buhs for his comments and asked what the board can do to support district staff.

"This is the reality of fire and EMS in this day and age," she said.

Buhs said the best thing the board can do is to continue to support his efforts to meet the challenges.

Board member Sheila Lamb commended Buhs for speaking up on the topic, as she knows it is not an easy one to discuss.

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"This has been an ongoing problem with a lack of mental health (support). I know some paramedics where 40 years later a lot of this still haunts them," she said.

Lamb said not addressing mental health can not only lead to burnout, but also addiction, suicide and domestic violence.

Way added that this is a reality for the service and said the board will look to support the district in any way it can.

"We support you in this and we support the staff," she said.

MORE FROM DYLAN SHERMAN:
The Thomson Township Board of Supervisors appointed David Sunnarborg to the vacant seat on the township board.

Dylan covers the local governments of Cloquet and Carlton County, as well as the Esko and Wrenshall school boards for the Cloquet Pine Journal.
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