Detroit bolstering employee assistance program for firefighters struggling with stress

The city of Detroit will bolster resources for city firefighters battling with stress and addiction to drugs and alcohol after multiple instances of employees responding to emergency cases while drunk.

In addition to conducting a 30-day environmental audit of the entire department, the city says it is partnering with local and national union leadership to bolster the employee assistance program offered to firefighters and other emergency responders.

Firefighters already respond to an increase in runs after their role was expanded to include medical responses.

However, the presence of COVID-19 magnified rumbling concerns of stress while also sucking out resources that firefighters and first responders use to cope with the job. When the public health crisis began, the city scaled back its employee assistance program to reduce the potential for spread. 

But that created its own public health crisis.

"We really should have recognized that when we put this extra stress on our firefighters, we should have dramatically ramped up our employee assistance program to help these very courageous individuals deal with the stress, deal with alcoholism, deal with whatever other issues," said Mayor Mike Duggan. "We should have ramped it up."

In the past, leadership within the department made several efforts to interact and stay in touch with firefighters at each of the city's dozens of fire stations. With less active supervision at a time of increased stress, reliance on substances became a larger issue.

Examples of that reliance were put on display after two separate instances in the past two weeks where firefighters called out on emergencies were under the influence of alcohol and crashed their department vehicles. 

One backed a rig into a parked car and the other ended with its front tires hanging over the Lodge Freeway.

The issue isn't just a local one, however. When Duggan called General Secretary-Treasurer of the International Association of Fire Fighters for guidance, he learned how widespread the problem was.

"He gave me quite the education," the mayor said of Ed Kelly.

"I have the distinct honor... of representing 325,000 paid professional firefighters and paramedics all throughout the United States and Canada. And what I can tell you is the challenges you're facing in Detroit are not germane to Detroit," said Kelly. "The challenges you have now that you are facing in the fire department are a societal issue."

To repair the strain that officials have been under, the city is reinstating and boosting its EAP. It will include a partnership between both local union members and the national team. 

The command staff is also no longer working remotely and will return to onsite work full time. That means more visitation from leadership.

And the deputy mayor, Conrad Mallet, will conduct an environmental audit of the entire department. He'll return in a month where a more explicit plan with better-tailored recommendations will be laid out to mitigate future stress.