Wellness program helps firefighters battle stress, cancer and suicide risk

California is on track to have the largest fire season in its history with more than three times the number of acres burned compared to this time last year.

For those on the fire lines of this year’s 7,200 wildfires that means little sleep, often weeks or more away from family, and putting an extreme amount of physical stress on their bodies.

But it also can mean something far more serious.

Studies show cancer and suicide are the top two ways that firefighters die, but they’re also prone to more behavioral health issues such as stress, trauma, anxiety, depression and PTSD than those in other professions.

"I have definitely had stress and anxiety that doesn’t turn off when I go home," Berkeley Interim Deputy Fire Chief David Sprague said. "We have firefighters that have substance abuse problems, that have chronic depression, PTSD and are actively engaged in managing those things by talking to counselors."

Five years ago, Berkeley Fire Department recognized the growing physical and mental challenges firefighters face. A wellness program was started within the fire academy aimed, in part, at managing anxiety and trauma.

Lab data shows positive results including a drastic improvement in sleep, less signs of stress and reduced psychiatric problems.

The wellness program does come at a cost of up to $2,500 a firefighter. Berkeley Fire hopes to expand its program beyond cadets to the entire department.

Dr. Sunjya Schweig with the California Center for Functional Medicine developed the lessons that are now taught at several West Coast fire departments. They cover key areas to better firefighters’ health: better nutrition, command of stress, proper sleep habits, and cancer risk reduction.

Smoky, toxic air and other occupational hazards is found to increase cancer risk by half compared to the general population and is responsible for an estimated 70% of deaths over their career.

New approaches to decontaminate and clean gear, and washing or taking more frequent showers are just a few ways firefighters can better keep themselves cancer-free.

"Our mission is to protect those who protect us," Schweig said. "They understand the risks that they put themselves into and it just makes sense to try and provide this to all of them."

But mental pressures – especially trauma -- are quickly becoming the biggest threat to firefighters’ health.

Suicide has risen among firefighters and the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance said 119 deaths were reported within all departments in 2019.

However, that’s considered a vast undercount because only 40% are reported suggesting the number of suicides within the fire service is nearly 300 a year.

Typically, firefighters, even by their own admission, are known for their tough demeanor and afraid to talk about struggles or share feelings for fear of appearing weak.

Step one, Schweig said, is recognition and seeking help before the stress or PTSD gets more severe. 

"The goal is to kind of have a safety valve on that," he said. "To be releasing the pressure on the system and to be vulnerable and talk to each other and to seek care from a therapist or to call a national hotline."

By having lifelines – a good support system, training and tools to boost emotional fitness, firefighters can take control of their mental health.

"I’ve seen a lot of people really struggle in this job," Sprague said. "I’m just so happy that people are learning the tools to deal with it better than I did in my career."

Brooks Jarosz is an investigative reporter for KTVU. Email him at brooks.jarosz@fox.com and follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @BrooksKTVU