Struggling in Silence: Firefighter Survey Shows Startling Results

Study shows many firefighters struggle with haunting memories of those they were trying to help

Henry Salazar hid how he was feeling for years, keeping secrets from both his family and his friends. After 15 years in the fire department, he doesn't want to hide anymore.

"I never wanted to tell anybody I was going to a psychiatrist or taking medication for depression or anxiety," said Salazar.

Salazar said his anxiety started on day one. After a hard day he would have a few drinks. Soon he was having a few bottles, trying to forget what he saw.

"Me, in particular, it's kids. You remember a kid passing away, or on a trauma. Our families don't know anything about the stuff that we see, just re-picturing the whole thing only traumatizes them," Salazar said.

When we asked him if other firefighters ask for help, he said, "It's impossible. Nobody really wants to speak out. Nobody wants to feel lesser of a man or woman. We all wear that uniform; some of us feel like were Superman underneath, which, I'm not gonna lie, it is what we feel."

Of the 7,000 firefighters we polled, 27 percent reported substance abuse problems while other issues were far more pervasive. Seventy one percent said they had trouble sleeping, 65 percent had unwanted memories and 19 percent had thoughts of suicide.

For female firefighter Kari Brannan the post-traumatic stress was consuming.

"Me being in a man's world added on a lot of stress. There would be fire fighting coats hung up and I would find spots underneath those coats and just cry, cry, cry, cry."

Brannan said she started serving as a Dallas firefighter and paramedic when she was 23 years old. She still struggles talking about certain calls, even though she's 11 years retired.

"We had a really bad run on a little girl that was murdered by her mom and that was when I started not sleeping and I stopped crying. I just wanted the stuff in my head to stop, so I planned out my suicide. I planned it out three times. I would sleep with a 38 pointed at my head. I knew that I was in a really dark place, that I just needed help. I ended up in a group therapy ... that saved my life," Brannan said.

Our survey shows those who seek out therapy are in the minority -- 81 percent of firefighters said they thought they would look weak or unfit if they spoke out about what they were feeling.

Salazar said it took a 30-day rehab program in Maryland, specifically designed for firefighters, for him to get the help he needed. He said he's no longer drinking and no longer haunted by the people he was there to help.

"Takes a lot of courage to say that you do have a problem. I wish I would've had the help a long time ago -- I love the way I feel now," Salazar said.

Aside from a standard employee assistance program, Dallas firefighters don't have any mandatory or elective therapy sessions. The Dallas Firefighters Association told NBC 5 they are in the process of training firefighters to go out in peer support teams to visit stations.

If you or someone you know would like to donate to funds set up to help firefighters- or if you want more information about the program in Maryland, please use links below:


Contact Us