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After his death, Hamilton Fire Department realized it didn't know how to talk about mental health

Posted at 10:47 PM, Jan 14, 2019
and last updated 2019-01-15 01:15:28-05

HAMILTON, Ohio — People in public service professions tend to be “fixers,” Hamilton Fire Department Lt. Jason Callihan said Monday night. Unsolvable problems stick in their gears.

For Callihan, that problem was the Dec. 28, 2015 death of colleague Patrick Wolterman.

He rode in the procession carrying Wolterman’s remains three days later, looking out over crowds who had come to show their support for the fire department. He spent over a year walking by the empty gray locker.

The true shock of it still wouldn’t hit until 2017, when he and others at the station realized how tightly they were gripping their pain.

“I shoved it all down,” he said. “When we got out on runs, we see things. We know how to process that. … When it comes to somebody you know, there’s no disconnect from that.”

There were few tools for coping with it in a workplace full of people whose priorities revolved around a shared desire to find solutions and move on to the next run. Callahan knew real recovery couldn’t happen without outside help.

It came from Community First, a health organization that sent a free counselor to provide mental health counseling and training to members of the department. The counselor remained with them through the trial that would eventually convict two men of arson and murder in connection to the fire in which Wolterman died.

Her help allowed Callihan to beginning process the loss, finally. It also made him realize how deep he and others had buried their grief — and how sorely an excavation was needed for them to grow beyond it.

“I don’t believe in closure when you lose someone you care about, but you certainly learn about post-traumatic growth,” he said. “For me, personally, I feel like I’m a better human being, a better person, firefighter, husband now than I was a year and a half ago.”

Callihan hopes to pass on some of those lessons at a Tuesday symposium for first responders in the Butler County area. At Fort Hamilton, more than 100 other “fixers” will learn from experts and peers about breaking the stigma against addressing mental health concerns in emergency response professions.