‘It’s OK to not be OK’: Local fire department leaders push for increased mental health screenings for first responders

Video: Local fire department leaders push for increased mental health screenings for first responders

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — Local fire department leaders are speaking out about the calls to increase mental health screenings for first responders following the overdose death of a Winter Park EMS captain. 

Winter Park fire Capt. A.J. Isaacs overdosed on painkillers, which were stolen from his own department. 

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“I know, without a doubt, there’s definitely PTSD within the fire service,” his widow, Heather Isaacs, said. 

It’s something local departments recognize and try to prevent. 

“As firefighters, we’re taught and we’re trained to be professional in every situation and dealing with these types of incidents through the years, we’ve learned to push our emotions to the background,” Orange County Fire Rescue Safety and Wellness Chief Antonio Demings said. 

OCFR revamped its behavioral health program a few years ago to include daily call for service reviews and regular chaplain visits to crew members in order to identify potential trauma early on. 

“What we do, it’s not the type of thing our families understand because they haven’t seen it and they haven’t done it, and it accumulates over time. It’s different for everybody in the fire service,” Demings said.

The concerns are the same in departments across Central Florida. 

“We’re really trying, holistically, to let people know it’s OK to not be OK,” Volusia Fire Rescue Deputy Chief of Operations Jeff Hussey said. 

Hussey said the push for annual mental health screenings is part of a national conversation, but neither department nor any others we surveyed in Central Florida do annual in-depth screenings for mental illness or post-traumatic stress disorder.

“This is such an important topic for all of our responders, all over the country, we’re really going to be having to look at it in the future,” Hussey said.

The barrier is the cost.

“Those types of services can range. They’re uber expensive, so over time it’s something we can visit, but especially during the climate we’re in right now with COVID-19, we have to safeguard how we utilize our funds,” Demings said.  “The time just isn’t right, right now, for us to do that.”

The approach on mental health varies from department to department. For example, Orlando firefighters undergo psychological evaluations before being hired, but other departments, including Seminole, do not. Some argue that’s proof that national standards are needed.

Video: ‘He had no escape’: Widow of Winter Park firefighter pushing for mental health screenings for first responders