DAYTON, Ohio (WDTN) – When Jim Burneka first joined the Dayton Fire Department in 2001, preparing for the mental toll of the job was not exactly a priority.

“Behavioral health was taboo when I first started. You know, whatever we went on and saw — we weren’t really able to talk about it openly,” said Burneka.

Steven Click, director of the Ohio Office of First Responder Wellness, said that was due in part to a lack of awareness, and perhaps, a shared mindset.

“You know we’re the people that other people call for help, and because of that we’re very reluctant to ask for help ourselves. We don’t want to appear weak.”

Click also spent 36 years with the Ohio State Highway Patrol. Similar to Burneka, he lived through a time when mental health simply wasn’t discussed. Eventually, that universal silence gave way to deeper-rooted issues.

“We realized that more and more members were struggling with substance abuse. We also had a member seven years ago who completed suicide,” Burneka said.

“It’s always been an issue,” Click said. “We know that nationally we lose two and a half to three times the number of police officers, firefighters and medics to suicide that we do to line of duty.” 

Click said only 40 to 45% of first responder suicides are reported.

“You know, we’re used to seeing a ton of traumatic events that the normal person maybe sees once or twice in a lifetime … and for us it’s just a day. It’s Tuesday for us.”

The City of Dayton has seen its fair share of tragedies in a short amount of time. In 2019, a hate group held a rally in downtown Dayton, tornadoes ripped through the area on Memorial Day and nine people died in a mass shooting in the Oregon District .

While singular events can be traumatic. It’s more often the little things that start to pile up.

“People don’t realize, but to go to someone’s house at 3 in the morning and tell them that their daughter’s not coming home,” said Click. “It is 10, 15, 25 years of those little things that we dismiss that take a toll on an individual.”

Every person responds to each tragedy differently.

“You know I think of all the kid calls I had, and it wasn’t as big of a deal back then but later on when I did have kids — even stuff back then resonated … and I started thinking about things that happened more than a decade ago.”

Over the years, Burneka has seen a shift in how mental health is addressed, and he’s played an integral part.

The Dayton Firefighters Local 136 Peer Support Team was formed. Burneka now serves as the fire department’s wellness coordinator.

“We have clinicians that are part of our team that are EMDR trained and they’re able to take that memory and file that away properly in our heads.” 

Just last month, Governor DeWine announced $1.3 million will go towards three statewide programs providing resources to Ohio’s first responders. In addition, Click said federal grants will provide $71 million over the next two years to agencies across the state.

Burneka said the goal is to finally start talking about trauma in a healthy way.

“And taking care of it early on before it actually becomes something, before we start having these nightmares. The substance abuse. Or you know stuff bleeds into our home life, our marriages. So taking care of this early on is so much better for us in the long run.” 

For more information on mental health support for Dayton firefighters, visit www.136peersupport.org.