ATLANTIC CITY, NJ - Not a week goes by when a tale of heroism and bravery on the part of firefighters is not told. For them, running into a burning building is as natural as running out of one is for the rest of us.
That became apparent again on Monday when members of the Paterson Fire Department responded to a fire at 268 Main Street, which led to the eventual total collapse of the structure.
However, while they may mask it well, the trauma and stress faced by members of the fire service sometimes becomes more than they can handle. Not always being conditioned to speak about their feelings has caused too many to suffer in silence, seeking comfort through substance abuse, and, at an all-too alarming rate, choosing a more final solution.
For one Paterson firefighter, his own struggles with alcohol were brought forward on Wednesday in front of more than 400 of his counterparts from all across the state at the NJ FMBA Education conference in Atlantic City. His story was part of a panel discussion highlighting the union’s Peer Assistance Program which offers a variety of mental health counseling opportunities to members at no cost.
Kyle Hughes, who joined the Paterson Fire Department in 2009, said that his struggle began as a college student in Nebraska upon the tragic death of his older brother in a construction accident in 1992. His “escape,” he told the audience, was in alcohol, and a lot of it.
“I wasn’t a bad guy,” Hughes said. “I was a sick guy that didn’t know how to get better.”
Despite obtaining good jobs in the construction industry that had him traveling the country, and earning a membership in the United Association of Plumbers (UA), his struggle with alcohol abuse continued, eventually leading to his dismissal from the union.
The death of his father in 2004, Hughes said, really sent him “off the rails” for about six months until realizing, upon losing his job, that he had hit what he called “rock bottom” and decided to seek treatment.
His drinking days behind him, things were looking up for Hughes, until a breakup sent him into another tailspin, and though equipped to stay away from alcohol, he did “isolate” himself. While he does not believe he had any intention of harming himself, Hughes recalled traveling down Route 80 at speeds topping 100 MPH when he received a phone call from a fellow firefighter who, recognizing distress in his voice, invited him for a cup of coffee.
That simple act, a cup of coffee and a listening ear, and “everything changed,” Hughes said, helping him make the decision to see a therapist for more support.
“When someone wants to listen, it changes everything,” said Hughes, who now serves as the Northern District Vice President of the FMBA.
In this position, Hughes is able to speak to many others, in firefighting and beyond, about his struggles, in hopes of encouraging others to find the help they need.
“It’s been a long and, at times, difficult journey, that is never really over,” Hughes said after his speech. “I’m in a much better place now, and that’s because of the path I’ve taken. My life is full of gifts. If my words and experience encouraged just one more person to find help for their struggles, opening up the way I did was worth it.”
A standing ovation, and a hug from NJ FMBA President Eddie Donnelly, awaited Hughes as he concluded his comments with a final reminder that while they are highly trained to save others, they “have to start learning how to save (themselves).”
“What Kyle did today was articulate issues so many of us in the fire service have faced,” said Donnelly. “We have to stop suffering in silence and start speaking up, being heard, and sharing our feelings.”