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Essex Fire Department Participates in National Mental Health Study

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ESSEX, Vt. (WCAX) - The Essex Fire Department was one of 17 in the nation to take part in a study on the mental health of firefighters during the pandemic.

Jennifer Taylor, the lead researcher of the Drexel University study, said they are doing pretty well when it comes to taking care of their crew during this pandemic, but leadership is still hoping to use this information to make improvements.

"We want to bring the fire service up to the 21st century," explained Stephen Trenholm, the battalion chief in charge of safety at the Essex Fire Department.

He and other members of the department took part in a nationwide study, evaluating first responders' mental health.

"Back when we all first started it was, 'OK rookie, it's your first day, shut up, listen, do what I tell you to do, and you'll be OK,'" Trenholm explained. "That's not how we brought our kids up and that's not the way we can operate in the fire service anymore."

Taylor said compared to other departments, Essex is doing a good job. She said fire service members reported an increase in supervisor support.

"One of the things supervisors can do is really have a strong affinity to consistent messaging and that could be one of the things that happened, to really express to their members why they care about their safety and why their safety is so important during such an uncertain time," Taylor said.

Still, Taylor said the pandemic is taking its toll on the department. Fear of bringing COVID home to their families was firefighters' biggest source of stress.

"There was also a conglomerate increase in anxiety--a risk of anxiety that increased over the six-month term of assessment, and that's a strong concern for us," Taylor said.

Trenholm said they respond to nearly 1,000 calls annually, a number he only expects to rise.

He says this research will benefit everyone.

"It all boils down to safety," Trenholm said. "If we want to have a culture of safety and we want people to be safe, you have to have your head in the game and you have to be 100% there."

Trenholm said they're also working with the town to make improvements. While he isn't entirely sure what those will be, he said they will definitely include better communication.

Credit: Rachel Mann at WCAX3