Learning self-defense and dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder are bigger parts of firefighter training these days, says Wellington fire chief Mike Wetherbee.
He recently told village council that attacks against firefighters have the WFD and other departments rethinking how first responders should prepare themselves.
On March 5, an elderly man with mental illness shot at Cincinnati firefighters after neighbors requested they check up on him. That came after a firefighter in the same department was shot in the brim of his helmet — but not wounded — on the scene of an emergency in 2015.
Last December, gunfire wounded a Youngstown firefighter at a residential blaze, which police investigated as a “targeted shooting.”
And reports of knife attacks on first responders also arose late last year in Washington, D.C., and Tuscon, Ariz.
“We’ve done a lot of situational awareness-type training to keep our people safe from these human factors,” said Wetherbee.
“It’s not about being injured by a fire. It’s being injured by the people we’re out there trying to protect. It’s becoming a lot more prevalent. It’s a matter of us trying to make our people aware that firefighters are being targeted and how to identify unsafe situations.”
He said there have been no reported incidents of Wellington firefighters being attacked.
Wetherbee said recognizing PTSD and other mental health concerns brought on by the nature of the job has never been more important.
He cited an incident last October in Pittsfield Township where two toddlers were found unconscious in a home daycare center pool. The young girl was pronounced dead at Oberlin’s Mercy Allen Hospital, while the other, a boy, was initially in critical condition but slowly recovered.
“Stress debriefing is of critical nature,” the chief said. “We’ve responded to situations with toddlers and have saved a few but lost one. That weighs heavily on your personnel. Instead of training with climbing ladders and spraying hoses, we need to start looking more at the human aspect of firefighting. That means dealing with people we’re there to help, but also dealing with ourselves, taking care of ourselves and our own mental well-being.”
Assistant chief Bill Brown said it can be difficult for both firefighters and police officers to discuss mental health.
“The term PTSD used to just be a military thing,” he said. “In reality, we’re seeing some of it after bad situations. Departments are full of a bunch of tough guys who find it hard to admit something sticks with them. That’s what it’s always been. It’s one of those things that a lot of places don’t even acknowledge is going on.”
He said autism awareness has also been a point of emphasis, which prompted the WFD to invite an Eagle Scout from Grafton who has the disorder to speak with the department.
“The Scout was a senior at Midview High School whose autism is pretty severe, but he is high-functioning,” Brown said. “He’s an Eagle Scout, which is pretty darn cool, and he gave us great insight and ideas on things we need to look for when dealing with people like him.”
Autism’s many and varied symptoms present challenges to emergency responders, he added.
“Training this year has been very different than what’s happened in the past,” said Brown. “We’ve learned a lot about how we should be dealing with autistic patients. Whether it’s a car accident or a medical call, you’ve got to treat people with that condition differently. You can’t just run up, grab them, and say, ‘What’s wrong?’ They can have a delayed response or panicked response. It could seem like they’re ignoring you, but in reality, it is just taking them a bit to process what you’re saying.”
Jonathan Delozier can be reached at 440-647-3171 or @DelozierNews on Twitter.