SAINT ANTONIO – A fireman’s job is grueling, but it’s not just physically dangerous. Seeing so much death and destruction is mentally and emotionally draining.
However, in a profession like firefighting, vulnerability can be difficult.
That’s why the San Antonio Fire Department just held a Mental Health Stand-Down Week to bring this difficult topic to the fore.
They did it with the help of one of their own.
Firefighter Kevin Burke is also an international spoken word artist, musician and performer. He has been with SAFD since 2016.
“Anything and everything you can think of. I mean, we’re there for medical runs. We’re there for psychic runs, fires, car or car wrecks, all that kind of stuff,” Burke said.
A few years ago, he was temporarily trapped in a fire, and he described the terrifying experience in a powerful spoken word performance called “Full Disclosure.”
“Full disclosure. I got a little bloated at work. I saw a wall of black and orange, looked up at my lieutenant and it pushed him into me, I out the door, the door slammed and separated me from everyone,” his voice said as the screen flashed images of the enormous fire shows.
The video was created by the organization Write About Now, a poetry community featuring poetry from around the world. Their video allowed Burke to unpack the mental health obstacles that come with being in the fire service.
When Burke recently learned that more firefighters die from suicide than fire, he knew he had to release it.
“Full disclosure,” the video continues. “My biggest fear is not sometimes getting hurt or even dying. This is who I will be at the end of each shift. Will my heart finally break hard enough to cry?”
Releasing the video freed him to dig deep and inspire others to talk about their lowest moments.
“I went through a rough place and kind of had a really low point, shall we just say, and luckily I had people around me who said they were worried about me that I should, you know, see if I need to get help,” Burke said.
He has been in therapy ever since and is now dedicated to helping his peers get help too.
SAFD held a Mental Health Retreat this month.
A counselor visited each station in town and talked about resources and ways to help each other.
“We set out messages every day. We’ve put out a podcast, we’ve got a video going. We basically evaluate every single thing that this department does for our members and then to make sure that they are aware of all the resources for them and for their family,” said SAFD Chief Charles Hood.
Chief Hood understands how deep mental health issues run in his industry.
“I get these calls coming on my phone. Child dies in a train accident, a person sets himself on fire. We go on those runs, and then we have to go home to our families,” Hood said.
He saw devastating fallout from unhealed invisible wounds.
“There have been far too many incidents across the country of first responders harming themselves, first responders losing their jobs when they shouldn’t, first responders acting because of things they saw,” Hood said.
Mental health stigma runs deep in general, but even deeper in the fire service.
“Hard to get guys to say when they need help and not see it as a sign of weakness,” Burke said.
“We are in a macho industry. We’re type A individuals, so we don’t normally go out and seek help from people,” Hood admitted.
He changes the way they investigate serious incidents and adds trauma therapy dogs to the rosters.
“It will be a working dog trained to deal with traumatic situations. We know medically, scientifically, pets give us hope. Pets lower our blood pressure, pets lower our heart rate. Pets are comforting. So we’re going to start a program here,” Hood said.
He acknowledges that the mental health battle will only intensify if it is not addressed publicly.
“Our city is getting bigger, call volumes are increasing, society is a lot more violent than it was when I started,” Hood said.
The effort to keep firefighters emotionally and mentally resilient must therefore be prioritized.
It’s a goal Burke is proud to be a part of.
“There was already a lot in place from our staff psychologist to peer support team to CIT training. Just make it more visible and then try more progressive things like the, the dog app and having somewhere on your phone, whether it’s through that app or just one landing page,” Burke said.
Burke’s poem continued: “Full disclosure. We are firefighters. We love our work. We are trauma jugglers wading through a daily flood of tragedy. We joke about each other’s close calls, bloody medical gloves, invincible laughter together. We laugh loud and loud and get very quiet when no one is there.”
Burke’s video was distributed during mental health week.
It was another display of bravery, in the form of vulnerability.
“My phone was blowing up with guys reaching out, thanking me and like I said, telling me their stories and, you know, so it was really cool,” he said.
“Full disclosure,” Burke said toward the end of the video. “I’m okay. Seriously, I am. I see a good therapist, I ask for help when I need it. I just wish more of us did.”
Currently, Burke is getting his masters in clinical mental health counseling. He wants to become a therapist, be on the helping side for fellow firefighters.
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