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Milwaukee firefighters expected to soldier on during COVID-19 pandemic

Posted at 7:58 AM, Jun 03, 2020

First responders have had to press ahead with business as usual despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lt. Brent Jones, a 20-year veteran of the Milwaukee Fire Department, said changes to the department's daily operations have been minimal. Firefighters are wearing masks and try to maintain social distancing while out on calls.

"It's just an extra step we have to take," Jones said.

But what members of the public might not be taking into account is that the added stresses of working despite health concerns over coronavirus could be particularly hard on firefighters already struggling with the pressures of the job.

"If this had happened back in 2018, this would've been horrible for me," said Jones.

That's because in 2018, Jones came dangerously close to taking his own life.

He said a rough divorce, followed by a return to running fire and medical calls after being "off the street" and training recruits at MFD's academy for two years, overwhelmed him.

That stress, which he wasn't keen to talk about at the time, led him to begin socially drinking heavily to try and "be happy again," Jones said.

Jones compared each of those stressors to books piling up on a shelf.

"Eventually, you've put so many books on the shelf, that the shelf breaks. It falls," Jones said.

Jones visited a therapist during the tough times, but said he was often left frustrated at the one hour time limit placed on sessions.

He said, after confiding in a coworker/friend that he had twice pressed a pistol to his head, that person insisted Jones get help immediately.

So, Jones spent 44 days being treated at a mental health facility in Maryland that caters to firefighters struggling with mental health issues.

Ignite the Spirit - Milwaukee, which raises money to support Milwaukee Firefighters and their families who've suffered or are suffering from hardships, paid for Jones' transportation to and from his treatment.

Joe Flick, President of Ignite the Spirit - Milwaukee, said COVID-19 has crippled the nonprofit's ability to get out into the community and fundraise.

But he said the organization is doing its best to lend support to firefighters struggling with the added pressure of the pandemic.

"This is something none of us have ever seen before, and we're kind of adjusting as we go and seeing what works," Flick said.

"For example, if you go to a scene for a car accident, it could turn out this is a COVID-19-positive patient," Flick added. "Now, we have to reel in a little bit and realize what we're actually there for."

Flick said, in recent weeks, Ignite the Spirit - Milwaukee has provided meals to 60 families of MFD firefighters either out sick or at home quarantined as a precaution because they were exposed to the virus.

Should a firefighter suffer a mental breakdown, or serious anxiety, during the pandemic, Flick said his organization would provide him or her with the same support it did for Lt. Jones.

"One of the barriers to getting help is often a firefighter saying, 'this treatment center will take me in, but it's a last-minute airfare ticket to get there," Flick said. "For that to even be a conscious thought they have is unacceptable. So we jump in, no questions asked, and take care of that to get them where they need to go."

"Obviously, the pandemic doesn't just shut down that kind of help," he added.

Ignite the Spirit - Milwaukee is also willing to pay for a ticket for a companion/escort to go with a firefighter to/from treatment if needed.

Lt. Jones is now back on the job with MFD and feeling much better. His crew operates out of Engine 22, at 80th & Lisbon.

He said, as many struggle with the stress of COVID-19, his message to them is simple: "Get help. Talk to somebody," Jones said, remembering how a conversation with a friend and colleague inspired him to finally seek treatment.

"If you're that person who gets the call, don't feel like you have to give advice. Most times we just want somebody who will listen to us," Jones added.

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