Peggy Mallen-Walczak sat on the couch in her Egg Harbor Township home Wednesday afternoon flipping through a binder full of certificates her son, Albert “Albie” Mallen Jr., had earned over his 20 years as an Atlantic City firefighter.
There were certificates for first aid and first-responder training, “but there’s no mental health,” she said.
Albie died June 26, 2017, after he was struck on the tracks by an Atlantic City Rail Line train through Galloway Township. He was 45, and one of 103 firefighters to die by suicide nationally in 2017.
“There should be mandatory, once-a-year training for suicide prevention,” Mallen-Walczak said, which could explain PTSD and warning signs and include resources for how to get help.
Last year, the number of firefighter suicides outnumbered the 93 firefighters who died in the line of duty, according to the Ruderman White Paper on Mental Health and Suicide of First Responders. The study found that post-traumatic stress disorder and depression rates among firefighters can be as much as five times higher than among nonfirefighters, leading to more suicides.
In South Jersey, fire departments are working to decrease that number through opening communication, offering counseling services after traumatic incidents and, in Atlantic City, a new training program.
Mallen-Walczak blames her son’s death on the state, which took over the Atlantic City Fire Department in April of last year, slashing salaries by 20 percent and changing the work schedule to three 24-hour shifts a week.
“They just destroyed everybody,” she said. “He said to me two or three months before, ‘I’m 45 years old, and I have nothing.’”
Atlantic City Fire Chief Scott Evans said the change in hours and pay has taken its toll on city firefighters, both mentally and financially.
“Not only am I concerned about the stress from being exposed to traumatic incidences, but now my firefighters are being exposed to financial problems,” he said.
But besides scheduling and pay cuts, there are stressors firefighters deal with every day that make the occupation a magnet for anxiety and depression.
Wildwood Fire Chief Daniel Speigel said as soon as a call comes into the firehouse, it’s like “going from zero to 100 in three seconds.”
Firefighters respond to many different types of calls, including assaults, drownings and fires, he said, and as soon as they get to the scene, they’re in charge of organizing the chaos.
Speigel recalled a fire on 17th Street in North Wildwood in which a woman was trapped inside a burning home and her mother was outside, screaming, when firefighters arrived. The woman inside the building died, he said.
“Things like that obviously affect you,” he said. “And we don’t want our firefighters holding on to any type of anguish.”
That anguish and trauma is something Mallen-Walczak knows well, as Albie was a third-generation firefighter.
“You see all the blood and gore, and then you’re supposed to go back to your normal life and pretend it didn’t happen,” she said.
But the culture of silence inside the firehouse is changing, both Speigel and Evans said.
After a traumatic call, firefighters meet in peer support groups, or a counselor is called in to speak with them.
“The past prestige of being the macho guy and not have feelings is passing,” Speigel said, adding that firefighters are humanizing themselves and realizing that seeing trauma can have a negative effect.
In Atlantic City, the department is rolling out a new program designed to teach firefighters about mental health and how to spot troubling behaviors.
Called the Behavioral Health Peer to Peer Training Program, it is intended to teach firefighters how to recognize stress from cognitive, emotional, physical and behavioral symptoms, Evans said.
“Before, it was a macho thing not to show the compassion or vulnerability, but it’s being widely accepted now,” Evans said. “I do see a change, but we have a long way to go.”