Dr. Steve Froehlich has one professional goal: to improve the well-being of firefighters and their families.
Froehlich is the director of the behavior health program at United Firefighters of Los Angeles City/LAFD Center for Health & Wellness, which opened in September 2020.
Housed at the site of the former LAFD Fire Station 7 in Arleta, the center has two licensed mental health professionals, a certified addictions/alcoholism specialist and a marriage and family therapy intern. All services are free.
“Fire is a unique population,” Froehlich says. “It has very, very unique features. There are so many barriers for firefighters to get to the point where they’re willing to accept therapy to begin with. Once we get through those barriers, it can help.”
For Froehlich, the center is a much-needed resource for the firefighters and their families in town.
“More firefighters in 2017 died by suicide in the United States than in line-of-duty deaths,” he says.
“It’s horrible. We have all the other psychological issues — depression, anxiety, and marital and family problems. They’re all very exacerbated by the stress of the job.”
“We are not in charge of our past. However each one of us will determine its meaning, and the impact it will have on our lives moving forward.”
~ Steve Froehlich
Job-related Stress Impacts Firefighter Families
LAFD firefighters are some of the busiest first responders in the country. Each year, the LAFD responds to more than 500,000 emergency calls for service, ranging from structure fires to car accidents to shootings, and medical emergencies.
With their 24-hour platoon schedules, firefighters are gone for three or four days per week or more when needed. Froehlich says the first responders are sleep deprived. They may not be in the best mood when they return home, so Froehlich provides counseling for couples, families, and firefighters.
“How do you re-enter the family when you’ve been gone for three or four days?” Froehlich asked rhetorically. “Why isn’t your spouse running to greet you at the door? Why is the house functioning like a finely tuned machine? They walk in the front door and nobody needs them. The family is used to functioning independently. There are some critical dynamics here.”
The center also coordinates the UFLAC/LAFD Peer Support Program with more than 100 firefighter members of the peer support team. As peer support team members, firefighters are trained and often act as intermediaries to build trust between doctors and firefighters in need of assistance.
Froehlich contends most clinicians are ill equipped to treat firefighters. Therefore, at the center, he wants to create a training institute for interns who can be groomed to work with firefighters.
“I’m completely selfish about this,” he says. “I can’t refer one of our members to someone who doesn’t understand what the work-life is like, and what they’re being exposed to every shift.”
Suicidal Warning Signs
Clinicians, families, and coworkers need to keep a keen eye on firefighters for any signs of suicidal behavior. Withdrawal, Froehlich says, is one of the keys.
“They will notice personality changes,” he says. “A person may not be acting like they normally do. At the fire station level, it’s very noticeable because they live together. They know each other very well.”
Froehlich was approached to helm the center after the LAFD lost a beloved captain to suicide.
“He was the captain everybody wanted to be like,” he says. “The organization was shattered from top to bottom. They said, ‘We need you guys. Our psychologist retired. We have nothing in place.’
“We could come over to assist and care for the members. We got to know each other and with the Peers, the Local and the Department all working collaboratively, we were able to develop the Behavioral Health Program that we have today.”
Resources for LAFD Firefighters and Families
LAFD members and families have two behavior health programs in place today. One is a behavioral health program through the department, with two clinical psychologists who take care of the firefighters. The union also protects its members health and safety.
“You can imagine it’s so critical for such a dangerous profession,” Froehlich says. “The behavioral health challenge has risen to the surface. It’s taken a lot of work to raise consciousness of this.”
Up until five years ago, the Los Angeles Fire Department had one department psychologist for 3,500 active-duty firefighters, plus their families and retirees. Now, “The phone’s ringing all the time. We’re busy. It’s very exciting. I get to see the shift of the culture that’s happening. Both the Union President and the Fire Chief are incredibly supportive. When the two of them decide they’re going to support something, it’s like magic.”
By Christina Fuoco-Karasinski
Learn more about the United Firefighters of Los Angeles City/LAFD Center for Health & Wellness