ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – Veteran Orange County Fire Rescue chaplain Barry Brandon visited the county’s 42 fire stations 500 times in 2019 as part of the first wave of a new health initiative to catch signs of emotional trauma linked to PTSD.
“Firefighters are trained not to be open so that their human side shows," Brandon said. “Usually if it’s a traumatic experience, in my mind, I know the first time talking to them will not be sufficient.”
Brandon has served as chaplain for various fire departments from New Orleans to Orange County for 38 years.
The charismatic chaplain has been with the county for the past three years and was recognized for his work with the 2019 Fire Chiefs Award.
His expanded role is designed to make sure repeated exposure to trauma in the field is not breaking down the less experienced firefighters who may be unsure of how to cope.
A 2018 study by FEMA found that firefighters experience “secondary trauma” or “compassion fatigue” from repeated exposure trauma, also known as RET.
According to the study, firefighters may not be diagnosed with PTSD but “clearly suffer from symptoms such as: sleep disorders, avoidance behaviors and feelings of helplessness.”
Doss Bozman, an 18-year veteran of the fire department, said Brandon’s approach appears to be working.
“The men and women of our department are opening up to him because they see him as a person,” Bozman said.
Safety and Wellness battalion chief Antonio Demings said the chaplain’s work has allowed the fire department to introduce voluntary sessions that include first responders and their spouses.
“It’s not the type of thing you can explain to your family,” Demings said. “During this workshop, we’re working on different ways we can identify issues within ourselves that we can communicate to our families.”
The first family session was held on Dec.r 6 and will be developed to include children as the workshops evolve.
“The weight of it is what they take home," Demings said. “It’s hard for us to explain exactly what we’re going through."
"Who knows where the tipping point is,” Bozman said. “ We try to get them to talk about it at least as a crew, because your crew is your 24-hour family.”