Calls flood mental health hotline for Minnesota firefighters after Burnsville tragedy

Firefighters salute in front of a truck
First responders from local agencies salute and pay their respects in February along a procession route in Jordan.
Tim Evans for MPR News

A mental health hotline for firefighters in Minnesota has seen more demand after three first responders were killed in Burnsville last month.

The Minnesota Firefighter Initiative (MnFIRE) is a nonprofit that advocates for the wellbeing of firefighters in Minnesota. In a typical 30-day span, the organization says calls to its assistance program add up to more than eight hours.

In the three weeks since the shooting in Burnsville, there have been more than 13 hours of calls. That’s about a 60 percent increase.

MnFIRE’s president George Esbensen joined MPR News host Cathy Wurzer to talk about increasing mental health needs for Minnesota firefighters.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: Around Minnesota right now, skies are bright. It's a sunny day. It's going to get warm. Highs mid 50s to the lower 60s in the north, upper 60s, mid 70s in the south. At noon in Worthington, it's 56. It's 52 in Rochester. And outside The Thirsty Moose near Hibbing, it's 43. I'm Cathy Wurzer with Minnesota news headlines.

The fire danger in southwestern Minnesota has hit a critical stage. There's elevated fire risk today in places like Lyon, Murray, Cottonwood, Nobles, Jackson, Pipestone, and Rock counties with winds of 30 miles an hour today. Very low humidity and dry grasses. Any fires that could start will take off fast.

A red flag warning is in effect from 1:00 this afternoon until 7:00 tonight for much of southwestern Minnesota, but the fire danger is elevated today across most of the rest of the state, too. State investigators are digging through the charred remains of the Lutsen Resort today. Matt Sepic has more.

MATT SEPIC: A fire early last month destroyed the historic North Shore lodge. No one was hurt, but crews from eight fire departments spent hours knocking down the flames and dousing hotspots. The Minnesota Fire Marshal's Division says investigators will sift through the debris in an effort to learn where and how the fire started.

A state inspection in July found seven code violations. The building's owner repaired four of them, but authorities have not determined whether the remaining ones played a role in the fire. The site, between Highway 61 and Lake Superior, remains off limits to the public. I'm Matt Sepic, Minneapolis.


CATHY WURZER: A mental health hotline for firefighters in Minnesota is experiencing more calls for help after three first responders were killed in Burnsville last month. MnFIRE is a nonprofit that advocates for the well-being of firefighters in the state. In a typical 30 day span of time, the organization says calls to its assistance program add up to more than eight hours.

In the three weeks since the shooting in Burnsville, there have been more than 13 hours of calls. That's about a 60% increase. Joining us to talk about this is MnFIRE President George Esbensen. George, welcome back to the program.

GEORGE ESBENSEN: Thank you. Thanks for having me, Cathy.

CATHY WURZER: Were you surprised by this spike in calls at a time like this?

GEORGE ESBENSEN: Not really. When there's something as dramatic as what happened in Burnsville, I think it gets everybody in the fire service thinking about their own vulnerabilities and the job that they go out and do selflessly every day. The good news is now since the Hometown Heroes Assistance Program legislation was passed back in 2021, there is an outlet for people that have concerns that need to be addressed.

CATHY WURZER: I mentioned the Burnsville first responders which was, of course, a tragic situation. But on top of that, we've also had, gosh, a number of people die in fires in St. Paul so far this year-- I believe seven-- including the four little children who died in a house fire back in January. Roseville had a fire fatality. Can you give a sense to folks listening the toll something like that takes on firefighters?

GEORGE ESBENSEN: Absolutely. Yeah. I think that those instances that you're bringing up are very emblematic of the things that are going on all the time.

And even more so and more frequently are all the things that don't make the news in some big splashy way-- the car crashes with fatalities, the medical emergencies that a lot of fire departments respond to, just all the activities that you see in a pre-hospital setting and out in the public that involve serious injury and fatalities to civilians. Over the course of a long career, those add up, and the results can be quite tragic for the firefighters.

CATHY WURZER: Let's talk about the help there because you mentioned the medical emergencies. Firefighters get into the business to do just that, fight fires, but they're also answering more and more medical emergency calls. Is there proper training and resources available to help them in a job that is changed a bit, in a sense?

GEORGE ESBENSEN: Well, if you're referring to mental health resources and support for the firefighters--


GEORGE ESBENSEN: I would say that in Minnesota, those are lacking somewhat. It's getting better, but there's still a long, long way to go especially in greater Minnesota, I think, where resources tend to be invested more lightly in the local fire department than they are perhaps in some of the career fire departments in the metro.

So it is getting better, but we have a long, long way to go. There's an interesting stat out there talking about the investments that we make as a state. Minnesota ranks 21st in the nation in population, and we invest something like 19th in the nation in law enforcement, and 21st or 22nd in public works and parks.

And in the fire service, it's 46th in the nation, so we really under-invest in our fire service here in Minnesota. And one of the ways that shows itself is just the lack of resources sometimes available for firefighters when they are in positions where they need assistance.

CATHY WURZER: Of course, there's also the barrier-- I would guess some folks just have a really hard time asking for help, and that can be sometimes a point of pride to suck it up and keep going. So how do you break through those barriers, that hesitancy?

GEORGE ESBENSEN: Well, yeah. That is a great point, Cathy. I mean, when you are the person that's assigned to go and help other people, sometimes the last person's well-being that you're thinking about is your own. And I think some people think that because they're a firefighter, maybe they're going to be immune from some of those things that affect people in the general population.

And that's just absolutely not true. And all firefighters have all the same pressures that all civilians do-- their job, their family, financial things, sick kids, sick parents, et cetera. And then mindfully, they're showing up at other people's worst days either as a volunteer or non-career firefighter or as their career as a firefighter.

And those things can add up if you don't have the proper coping skills and outlets for those kinds of things and aren't going to go seek help like you would if you-- if broke your leg, you'd go see a doctor. But when people have things that happen with them emotionally, there's this still this stigma in our broader society about seeking help, and so those are the barriers that we're working to overcome every day.

CATHY WURZER: So once a firefighter decides, OK, you know what? I need some help. What happens then?

GEORGE ESBENSEN: Well, hopefully, they call our toll free number 24/7, and get connected with one of our master's level trained clinicians who are answering the phone. So it's not an answering service you're calling, it's a direct pipeline into a trauma-informed mental health expert who will help you navigate that immediate issue that you're facing and the emotions that you're having and then help you set up your free counseling sessions.

And the free counseling sessions are also available for the firefighters' immediate family and anyone living in their home with them. It's all free.

CATHY WURZER: It's all free.


CATHY WURZER: I'm wondering about-- sometimes, people respond best to talking to peers. Do you have a peer support network, too?

GEORGE ESBENSEN: That's a great point, Cathy. That's absolutely true. People do need to connect with peers, and so we have a vast array of peer supporters in Minnesota-- over 100. And so as part of the more formal connection that you're going to get with a mental health provider, then every single person that calls in for mental health or emotional trauma issues is assigned a peer supporter.

And it's a person that's in an organization, a fire department, that's kind of structured the way the one is that you're a part of. So if you're a career firefighter, your peer supporter is going to be a career firefighter. If you're a captain, your peer supporter is going to be a captain.

If you're a non-career firefighter in Crookston area out in greater Minnesota, you're going to be assigned to somebody who's also a non-career firefighter in a more rural setting.

CATHY WURZER: You and I talked when this was first starting about almost three years ago-- two and 1/2 years ago, three years ago. How are you measuring the success of the program?

GEORGE ESBENSEN: Well, we measure the success of the program, one, by the number of people that we've trained. So there's approximately 20,000 firefighters in Minnesota. They get about 1,000 that retire every year and 1,000 new people into the system. And since we've gotten rolling here, we've trained about 17,000 firefighters.

So we still have a ways to go there, but we're making some good inroads, and that's really where it all starts is with awareness about how you implement your own personal and organizational prevention and mitigation strategies, and then just by the increasing amount of awareness that we have and the call volume.

We also provide benefits for people that get sick with cancer, cardiac, a formal PTSD diagnosis, et cetera. We've paid out nearly $2.5 million in benefits through that program. And then also measuring-- I think we're up to over 900, almost 1,000 mental health providers around the state that have been identified and that we've continually provided training to them on how to be a trauma informed mental health provider.

CATHY WURZER: You're working hard to help your colleagues, clearly. And as you say, you're making some inroads. Do you think at times it's enough to keep folks from leaving the fire service? I mean, much like we hear about police departments having a difficult time with folks retiring and recruitment not as robust as it should be, do you worry about that folks just saying, thanks for the help, but I think I'm done here?

GEORGE ESBENSEN: Well, I think there is some of that. I think the difference between police and fire-- and just to be clear, I've never been in law enforcement, so I can't speak from personal knowledge. But I think the advantage that the firefighters have to hang in there is that they are universally adored, and so that helps them there.

I think there's more-- at least outwardly and in the media and whatnot, I think there's more support for the fire service. I mean, both those professions and EMS need all of our gratitude and our support, but I think the fire service really enjoys a special position in the hearts and minds of the general public.

But from a recruitment and retention standpoint, that is a big issue in Minnesota, especially with the non-career fire departments. And that probably is a lot of different factors including going to people's worst days, but there's also just shifting demographics that are really raising challenges for smaller fire departments that rely on non-career firefighters.

CATHY WURZER: But at least, as you say, you're making some inroads with help that is needed at this point to bolster those who are on duty.

GEORGE ESBENSEN: Absolutely. I mean, I just think about, if the Burnsville incident had happened prior to 2021, where were all those phone calls going?

CATHY WURZER: Right. George, I've run out of time. Thank you so very much.

GEORGE ESBENSEN: Thank you, Cathy. I appreciate your ongoing interest in firefighter well-being. I really appreciate it.

CATHY WURZER: Take care, George. George Esbensen is President of MnFIRE, also known as the Minnesota Firefighter Initiative. Now, their hotline for firefighters who may need some help is this. I'll give it to you. 888-784-6634.

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