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Fire Service Psychology: The Long Lost Sister

May 3, 2024

Dr. Kristen Wheldon, President and Founder of the Fire Service Psychology Association, talks systems, stakeholders, and firefighter mental health

The integration of psychological principles within fire service operations represents a substantial yet often overlooked aspect of ensuring the safety and efficacy of first responders.

The absence of a dedicated regulatory authority in the U.S. Fire Service accentuates the need for robust, self-regulated frameworks, especially in the domain of mental health.

In this article, Dr. Kristen Wheldon, President and Founder of the Fire Service Psychology Association, advocates for a systematic approach to embedding psychological wellness into the training and daily operations of firefighters and EMS providers.

Systems

Fire service and EMS providers function within local, regional, and national frameworks.

However, unlike many other industries, the US Fire Service operates without a dedicated regulatory authority overseeing its activities.

The Secretary of Defense serves as the primary advisor to the President on defense policy matters.

Acting under the President’s directives, the Secretary holds authority, guidance, and supervision over the Department of Defense (DOD).

The establishment of the Department of Justice aims to uphold legal principles, ensure national security, and safeguard civil liberties.

Notably, the U.S. Fire Administration does not serve as a regulatory entity.

Instead, it serves as the leading federal agency responsible for collecting fire-related data, promoting public fire education, conducting fire research, and providing fire service training.

In the absence of a federal regulatory body for the fire service, local authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs) are responsible for determining the adoption of specific standards within their operational protocols.

Voices to Congress

Prominent stakeholders in the fire service, often referred to as the “Nine Sisters” within Washington, D.C., advocate to Congress regarding the needs of the fire service.

Many of these stakeholders are the Congressional Fire Services Institute’s National Advisory Committee (NAC) members.

However, the psychology community lacks representation in these spheres.

This notable absence impacts the national dialogues concerning optimal practices for fire service psychology.

There is no established scientific community of fire service psychologists represented in the national approach to fire service mental health.

Psychology as a regulated profession

Psychology is a profession subject to regulation, with each state or province having its own legislation governing licensure and practice.

This regulatory framework mirrors that of various other professions, such as lawyers, optometrists, accountants, architects, and medical doctors, aimed at safeguarding the public from potential harm.

However, integrating professional psychology with the fire service remains relatively uncharted territory.

Most providers were adopted from military or law enforcement specialties.

Psychologists employed within fire service agencies must abide by their profession’s laws and ethical standards, even if they conflict with the organization’s desires.

Negotiating these challenges can strain the provider considerably, particularly since they often work in isolation.

Nevertheless, there exists a small yet burgeoning professional community dedicated to advancing the application of psychology within the fire service.

Fire service standards

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) is a nonprofit organization accredited by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), tasked with developing standards that cover almost 300 aspects of safety and health within the constructed environment, including protocols for emergency responders in such environments.

NFPA codes are formulated through a consensus-based approach and undergo a transparent process open to public participation.

This means that individuals from any background can engage in the NFPA code development process.

Each code or standard undergoes updates every three to five years, with revisions occurring biannually.

Legal standards and psychology

The Frye standard serves as a legal criterion for assessing the admissibility of scientific evidence within court proceedings, with these criteria established by the relevant scientific community.

Regarding pre-employment psychological screening within the fire service, adherence to the Frye standard necessitates that the scientific community of fire service psychology widely recognizes any psychological tests or assessments utilized in the screening process as dependable and valid indicators of psychological suitability for firefighting responsibilities.

This also has applicability in cases of workplace stress and psychological injuries tied to the occupation.

This entails that the tests have undergone rigorous peer review, publication, and have garnered broad acceptance within fire service psychology community.

The current system of using criteria from one profession to determine constitutionally given employment rights in (attaining and maintaining a job) for a completely different profession is unethical and harmful.

This raises risk potential to certainty for knowingly engaging in a proscribed and unethical practice that affects the job rights for individuals and potentially for a class of such individuals.

As it currently stands, psychologists and fire service organizations unethically and perhaps unlawfully engage in the practice of using untested and invalid criteria for choosing not to hire or retain a person who is suitable or fit, or using untested and not valid (a priori) criteria to hire or retain someone who is not suitable or not fit.

NFPA and legal standards

The NFPA lacks the authority to set psychological standards, as the field of psychology is subject to regulation.

Establishing psychological standards for suitability would require widespread acceptance within the scientific community of fire service psychology.

Collaboration between the fire service and psychology is essential to develop such standards, with both communities joining forces to identify best practices.

Fire Service Psychology as a stakeholder

Psychologists are a major stakeholder in firefighter behavioral health, given that many of our constituents are the professionals who provide direct assessment, operational support, clinical intervention, and management consultation to fire service agencies.

Utilizing professional standards from other disciplines is not only less than ideal, it may be unethical.

The members of FSPA span several states within the United States and internationally (Singapore, Canada, Lithuania, New Zealand, etc.)

The integration of fire service psychology as a major stakeholder is crucial for the fire service to utilize professional psychological services across the domains of psychological assessment, management consultation, operational support, and clinical intervention.

The evolution of fire service psychology can lead to:

Enhanced mental health support: Firefighters and EMS providers face numerous stressors and traumatic experiences in their line of duty.

Incorporating fire service psychology ensures access to specialized mental health support, addressing issues like PTSD, anxiety, and depression, suicidal ideation, thereby promoting overall well-being among personnel.

Improved performance and resilience: Understanding the psychological aspects of firefighting can lead to tailored training programs and strategies to enhance resilience, decision-making under pressure, and teamwork.

By optimizing psychological support, the fire service can improve performance outcomes and mitigate the impact of critical incidents on personnel.

These resources can include trauma risk management and psychological autopsies.

Reduced occupational stress and burnout: Fire service psychology interventions can help identify and mitigate occupational stress and burnout sources.

By addressing these factors proactively, organizations can foster a healthier work environment, leading to decreased absenteeism, turnover, and long-term psychological consequences for personnel.

Risk mitigation and safety: Psychological assessments and interventions can contribute to trauma risk assessment, preemployment screening, and management protocols within the fire service.

By identifying individuals at risk of impaired performance due to psychological factors, organizations can implement preventive measures to enhance safety for personnel and the communities they serve.

Through human factors analysis, the fire service can increase safety during operations.

Legal compliance and professional standards: Integrating fire service psychology aligns with legal standards and professional ethics, such as the Frye standard.

It ensures that psychological assessments and interventions meet rigorous scientific criteria for admissibility and effectiveness, fostering accountability and professionalism within the fire service.

In summary, adopting fire service psychology as a major stakeholder is essential for safeguarding the mental health and well-being of fire service personnel, optimizing organizational performance, enhancing safety outcomes, and ensuring compliance with legal and professional standards.

By recognizing the importance of psychological factors in firefighting and EMS operations, the fire service can better fulfill its mission while supporting the resilience and effectiveness of its workforce.

This article was originally published in the May 2024 issue of Fire & Safety Journal Americas. To read your FREE digital copy, click here.

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