By Otutoa Afu
Otutoa Afu is majoring in Science, Technology, and Society. He plans to pursue a career in the fire service once done with school.
After completing the fire academy in 2018, I was fortunate enough to get hired as a full time firefighter at the El Medio Fire Department out of South Oroville, California. At that time I was just a 19-year-old growing boy who never knew his life was going to change due to the fire service. Working as a firefighter, people have always thought about the cool things you get to do, from playing with the “jaws of life” to going to elementary school and playing hero for the young ones. But nobody ever told us about the bad things that came with being a firefighter.
(Left to right) Otutoa Afu, Senior Firefighter Shawn Perez, Captain Jeffery Gamble.
After accepting my football scholarship here at South Dakota Mines, I left my job in California and joined the Rapid Valley Fire Department student resident program here in South Dakota. The student resident program is where you get to live at the fire station and run calls. You also need to be enrolled as a full time student and maintain a certain GPA.
Because of my strong interest in firefighting, it was a good fit to explore firefighter mental health for my capstone project. The stress faced by firefighters throughout the course of their careers can be hard on mental health and well-being. This stress can be caused by incidents involving children, violence, inherent dangers of firefighting, and other traumatic events. For instance, you might roll up on a head-to-head traffic collision involving two vehicles, a family of five vs. drunk driver that leaves the parents dead. Later in the same shift, you can get called out for a suicidal patient to walk in on the patient hanging themselves. Some may say firefighters know what they are getting into, but that does not make them immune to developing mental health issues.
For my capstone project, I want to explore how firefighters are affected by their job and how fire departments address mental health. I will approach these topics by analyzing journals, scientific papers on mental health, and other reliable sources from those that are in the field or have been in the field. Hopefully this can help me summarize what the best coping tools or even shift schedules can be best for firefighters and their well-being and share with fire departments around the nation, maybe even internationally. All in all, firefighters are always there when called, and we should be there to help them, too.