UPPER MARLBORO, Md. — Firefighters face a tough job. Sometimes they see tragedy unfold and put their lives at risk while working to save others. Such experiences may leave indelible impressions that can be difficult to process.
The International Association of Firefighters Center of Excellence for Behavioral Health was created to specifically help this branch of first responders cope with work-related traumatic stress.
“They have to be able to deal with it at a moment in time, but it doesn’t mean that some of these images and experiences don’t stay with them,” said Harold Schaitberger, IAFF president. “Sometimes they’ll use firehouse humor to kind of cover up their pain. Unfortunately, sometimes they turn to alcohol or drugs, other sources of addiction to try to tamp down that pain that they’re feeling internally.”
Bordered by tranquil forest and farmland in Upper Marlboro, Schaitberger says the recovery center is a place for firefighters to heal.
“Whether it’s spiritually, medically, clinically, they’ll be able to get their lives back in order and be ready to go back to the job and their families,” said Schaitberger. “That’s what this place is all about.”
Patients at the IAFF recovery center can expect whole-person treatment. The center offers confidential treatment for IAFF members who are battling addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder. Staff members also give patients tools to deal with other co-occurring disorders such as anxiety and depression.
“It’s not just going to be about their mental health. It’s going to be how they’re sleeping and how much caffeine they’re consuming, and how much exercise they’re getting and how they’re eating,” said Dr. Abby Morris, the center’s medical director and psychiatrist.
Morris also said part of her job is to make sure the firefighters are comfortable at the facility and that they have some fun as part of their path to full recovery.
The 64-bed facility includes 16 beds specifically for patients who need to detox said Jamie White, operations project manager with Advanced Recovery Systems, an IAFF partner.
White told WTOP during a facility tour that part of the campus design is meant to recreate firehouse camaraderie for each patient. Living quarters are comprised of four cottages or “station houses.” Individual rooms in each cottage include four beds with layout and lockers arranged to resemble that of a typical fire station.
There’s also a gym to help patients get back to peak physical condition.
When each patient is ready to re-enter the work force, there’s a special ceremony in “Renewal Plaza,” complete with a bell that will be rung to signify a return to service.