Author(s): Casey Grant. Published on January 2, 2019.

Speak Up

Why it’s critically important for responders to share their stories to advance research into behavioral health

At a meeting last year, a friend pulled me aside and told me about his firefighter son’s struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which have become a significant challenge for his family and his fire service career. As we talked, the father mentioned that he didn’t believe that bringing up these personal issues to the larger group at meetings like the one we were attending was of much use. To this, I respectfully and politely disagreed. I told him, on the contrary, his voice and others like his are critically important to facilitate research projects that bring us solutions to real problems.

This is especially true for NFPA and the Fire Protection Research Foundation (FPRF), which are focused on what’s called “applied research,” where the goal is to answer tangible real-world questions in order to solve or alleviate real-world problems. For applied researchers, the voice of the stakeholder is an essential guide. Not only does it instruct us on where to devote our efforts, it allows us to make the case to grant-making organizations about how their resources can be used to help solve critical problems impacting countless numbers of people. We simply cannot succeed unless the people on the front lines who experience these issues most acutely and most personally come forward and tell us.

This type of information exchange often takes place at NFPA-sponsored meetings and workshops, and a recent example occurred at the NFPA Responder Forum, held in October in Birmingham, Alabama. The gathering of about 100 up-and-coming emergency response professionals focused its discussions around a theme of diversity and cultural acceptance within the fire service. There were deep dives into issues like hazing, bullying, inclusion, hiring, recruitment, retention, and LGBTQ considerations. The speakers were powerful and shared personal stories on topics ranging from harassment to LGBTQ equality, examples of problems that can contribute to PTSD in responders. There is no question these are challenging topics for group discussion.

Like many NFPA and FPRF events, instead of a simple one-way lecture to the attendees, the discussion developed into a conversation that involved many of the participants. From this broader conversation, the group identified several topics for further explanation, including the need for more research planning and funding around important areas such as suicide prevention. While it’s too early to know what specific projects might directly come out of the conversations at the Responder Forum, I can assure you that these give-and-take discussions contain invaluable insights for researchers—knowledge that would be difficult to gain any other way.

It’s this type of process that allows the seeds for important projects to begin to take root, which is exactly what is starting to happen around the issues of responder behavioral health, PTSD, and suicide prevention. Not long ago, these issues were not studied extensively, and obtaining funding for projects was difficult. However, continued engagement with stakeholders, along with the persistence of responder organizations in telling researchers that these areas require attention, has led to a swell of activity around behavioral health. Several projects are now underway, including an effort supported effort by the Research Foundation at Duke University to develop suicide intervention training materials for firefighters.

So, if you think it isn’t important to speak up or that telling your story won’t make a difference, I’m telling you otherwise. The voice of the stakeholder is paramount in our quest to engage well-designed research projects that provide meaningful, genuine, and long-lasting resolutions.

CASEY GRANT is executive director of the Fire Protection Research Foundation. Top Illustration: Michael Hoeweler