WEBSTER GROVES, MO. - Saturday morning chores are a routine that helps Captain Nick Hercules escape from all the memories that haunt him. And even if it’s just temporarily relief, every little bit helps.
“I will tell you that you’re never really ready for what we’re exposed to,” he said.
Hercules is a devoted husband and father who never set out to become a firefighter or paramedic.
“I was the kid who wanted to be an archaeologist and for whatever reason, it took a turn and I ended up here,” he said, laughing.
And come January, he will have spent 20 years putting himself in harm’s way. The majority of his service has been spent with the Webster Groves Fire Department.
“On a daily basis, when you’re here at work, you never know what’s going to come out when the tones go off,” Hercules said.
It’s a dangerous and potentially deadly job that comes with extreme stress and trauma.
“We have the stresses of seeing people having the worst times of their life," he said. "Some of the most traumatic, some of the most devastating.”
One call in particular still sticks out to the fire service veteran.
It was a rollover crash on New Year’s Eve and Hercules got the call.
“I can still remember pulling up to the scene. I can remember every detail about inside the car, upside down. Seeing that young girl who lost her life basically burns itself into your mind and doesn’t go away,” he said.
Rather, those flashbacks always remain and add to what he says are the memories that are so close to overflowing.
“My stress is like a cup of water," he said. "And every time I get stressed, that cup gets fuller. A little fuller. A little fuller.”
It’s just one example of what’s being described as one of the greatest threats facing the nation’s fire and EMS service right now.
“The reality is human beings were not built emotionally to endure the kind of stress first responders go through,” said Kurt Becker, a Clayton firefighter and Missouri field representative for the International Association of Firefighters.
The organization found in a new study that 20% of firefighters and paramedics suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. The study also found the rates of diagnosis are similar to what combat troops experience upon returning from war.
Becker said, “Half of our guys, over their working lives, have endured so much it puts them in a position where they contemplate whether they want to be part of this world.”
In Florida, a battalion chief recently posted a chilling message on Facebook about his battle with PTSD before taking his own life.
And here at home, NewsChannel 5 is aware of at least two local firefighters who have committed suicide in recent weeks. One of them was a close personal friend and former coworker of Hercules.
“I lost a brother in the fire service just very recently," he said. "It just got to be too much. Life got to be too much. The loss for his wife and children are devastating.”
But one big problem in treating this issue is neither Missouri nor Illinois recognize PTSD as a disability, allowing firefighters or paramedics to receive worker’s compensation benefits.
“That has led to a lot our guys just burying it,” Becker said.
In fact, only one state, Oregon, in the entire country does. You can read more about the law and how it’s applied here.
It’s presumptive disability legislation the IAFF is now pushing across the country to better recognize, treat and prevent PTSD.
Becker said, “We can defuse these folks and these incidents when bad things start to happen. And we can give them the tools they need to be normal, healthy and happy people.”
“The things we see and do have an effect. And it’s a cumulative effect that never goes away,” Hercules said.
For him, even though he hasn’t been diagnosed with PTSD yet, there’s still a fire burning inside that he only wishes he could extinguish.
That’s why Hercules would like to see 49 other states follow suit. “The price for the people who fall through the cracks is too high. It’s just too high,” he said.
Many local fire departments and fire unions offer therapy and support groups, especially after the most horrific and traumatic calls.
And if you’re interested in supporting our first responders and their mental health, you can do so through organizations like the “Share the Load” program, the “Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance” and “Responder Rescue.” Links are provided below.