Fire Psychology: The Dawning of a New Age

By: Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

Another seminal moment for the fire service happened last Friday in Los Angeles when 60 psychologist law enforcement officers and fire service leaders gathered for the Bridging the Gap conference sponsored by the Fire Service Psychology Association (FPSA).

According to conference organizer and the President of FSPA, Dr. Kristen Wheldon, the goal of the conference was to bring the

Dr. Kristen Wheldon is a psychologist who specializes in working with firefighters and their families. She has served as a Fire Psychologist and Director of Behavioral Health for Los Angeles Fire Department prior to becoming President of the Fire Service Psychology Association.

members of the psychology and fire service worlds together to help firefighters deal with mental health challenges and to improve overall firefighter behavioral health.

Said Wheldon, who has worked with firefighters in her private psychology practice, “Firefighters are different from police officers. They have a unique culture, job duties, and dynamic experiences. They need a psychologist who understands them. They deserve access to specialized services.”

And what would that “different kind of psychologist “look like”? According to Wheldon, they would be a psychologist who understands the unique nature of firefighters and the culture of the fire service. And they would have the necessary competencies to work within that culture to get firefighters the mental health services they need when they need them.

“But we’re a long way from there,” Wheldon said. “And that’s why we started the Fire Service Psychology Association. We need to bring psychologists and fire service leaders together to start identifying what those competencies are and how we develop those competencies in psychologists and other mental health professionals. Because the fire service and firefighters are unique, and because they present unique challenges for mental health professionals.”

The Conference

Among the presenters was Dr. Burton Clark who spoke about the fire service culture to give attendees a sense of what a firefighter’s DNA contains in his presentation, American Fire Service Culture from a Firefighter’s Perspective. Clark has been studying fire service culture over his entire fire service career which spans almost 50 years and is the author of the book, I Can’t Save Your Life But I’ll Die Trying: The American Fire Culture.

Said Clark in a LinkedIn post before the conference. “Making history tomorrow! I was at the first Congressional Fire Caucus Dinner and the first EFO [Executive Fire Officer] Graduate Symposium in the 20th century. Bridging the Gap may be the most important first conference to the American fire culture in the 21st century.” (Rumor has it that Dr. Clark was also present when Moses brought the tablets down from the mountain).

Ali Rothrock is a former firefighter who shared her story of enduring abuse from her fellow firefighters for several years. At the

Ali Rothrock, former firefighter, PTSD suffer/survivor, and author delivering her presentation at “Bridging the Gap” conference.

conference she shared her story of that abuse, abuse that ultimately led to a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder during her presentation, Presenting the Needs of Women in the Fire Service.

Said Rothrock, “In my presentation I provided some mental health education around post-traumatic stress, acute stress and stigma as they relate to firefighters. My goal was to increase the clinician’s cultural competence around firefighting, so that if any firefighter were to come for them for help, they could understand a bit more of that world.”

Charles G. Allen, Ph.D., aka, “Dr. Chuck” is a licensed psychologist with 45 years of experience in the mental health field and has worked with the South Metro (Colo.) Fire Rescue Department since 2010 in a consulting capacity. Dr. Chuck enlightened conference attendees on some other aspects of the fire service where professional psychology can have significant impact in his presentation, Developing Effective Performance Improvement Plans.

Panel Review: The Future of Fire Psychology

The conference concluded with a panel review hosted by Dr. Wheldon. When asked what issues or needs that panel members were able

Dr. Kristen Wheldon [L] leads the conference Panel Review with [L-R] Battalion Chief Wendell Eaton of the Pasadena (Calif.) Fire Department; Ali Rothrock, Dr. Burt Clark, and Dr. Chuck.

to identify and discuss, Wheldon said, “There were many ideas expressed in a short period of time, and these were the ones that I really think ‘stuck to the wall’ so to speak.”

  • Develop psychologists with the competencies necessary to help firefighters with behavioral health issues.
  • Develop firefighters with the knowledge and understanding for what psychologists can do for them and reduce the stigma associated with getting behavioral health issues.
  • Develop standards and guidelines and training for psychologists to obtain the necessary competencies to assist firefighters with behavioral health issues.
  • Develop guidelines for fire departments to use in recruiting mental health professionals in their communities.
  • Get fire psychology recognized by the American Psychological Association as its own specialty (similar to police psychology).

Said Rothrock, “My biggest takeaway from the conference was that the topic around firefighter’s mental health has moved light-years away from where it was when I joined the fire service 14 years ago. We now have clinicians who are actively working to provide firefighter-specific mental health help. I am so grateful and excited that the Fire Service Psychology Associations exists and I’m proud to be a member.”

The Fire Service Psychology Association Needs You!

Yes you! For more information how you can join and contribute to this “bi-partisan” effort to improve behavioral health services for member of the fire service, visit the FSPA website or look them up on Facebook @fireservicepsychologyassociation.

About Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

Battalion Chief (Ret.) Robert Avsec served with the men and women of the Chesterfield County (VA) Fire and EMS Department for 26 years. He’s now using his acquired knowledge, skills, and experiences as a freelance writer for FireRescue1.com and as the “blogger in chief” for this blog. Chief Avsec and his wife of 30+ years now make their home in Cross Lanes, WV. Contact him via e-mail, rpa1157@gmail.com.