Hear SAFD firefighter’s powerful spoken poem about mental health challenges in fire service

His video was part of the first Mental Health Stand-Down Week at SAFD, making the issue a priority

SAN ANTONIO – A firefighter’s job is grueling, but it’s not just physically dangerous. Seeing so much death and destruction is mentally and emotionally wearing.

However, in a profession like firefighting, vulnerability can be tough to come by.

That’s why the San Antonio Fire Department just held a Mental Health Stand-Down Week, to put this tough topic front and center.

They did that with the help of one of their own.

Firefighter Kevin Burke is also an international spoken word performer, musician, and artist. He’s been with SAFD since 2016.

“Anything and everything that you could think of. I mean, we’re there for medical runs. We’re there for psych runs, fires, car or car wrecks, all that kind of stuff,” Burke said.

A few years ago he was temporarily trapped in a fire, and he described the terrifying experience in a powerful spoken word performance called “Full Disclosure.”

“Full disclosure. I got a little blown up at work. I saw a wall of black and orange, look up at my lieutenant and it shoved him into me, me out the door, the door slammed shut separating me from all of them,” his voice said while the screen shows images of the enormous fire.

The video was created by the organization Write About Now, a poetry community featuring poetry from across the world. Their video allowed Burke to hash out the mental health obstacles that come with being in the fire service.

When Burke recently learned that more firefighters die from suicide than fire, he knew he had to release it.

“Full disclosure,” the video continues. “My biggest fear is not getting hurt or even dying, sometimes. It’s who I’ll be at the end of each shift. Will my heart eventually break hard enough to ash?”

The release of the video freed him to dig deep and inspire others to talk about their lowest times.

“I went through a rough patch and kind of had a very low point, we’ll just say, and luckily had people around me that said they were worried about me that I should, you know, look into getting help,” Burke said.

He’s been in therapy ever since and is now dedicated to helping his peers find help too.

This month, SAFD held a Mental Health Stand-Down Week.

A counselor visited every station in town, talking about resources and ways to help each other.

“We’re setting out messages every day. We have put out a podcast, we have a video that’s running. We’re basically evaluating every single thing that this department does for our members and then to make sure that they are aware of all the resources for them and for their family,” said SAFD Chief Charles Hood.

Chief Hood understands how deep mental health issues run in his industry.

“I get these calls that come across my phone. Child killed in a train accident, a person sets himself on fire. We go on those runs, and then we have to go home to our families,” Hood said.

He has seen devastating fallout from unhealed invisible wounds.

“There’s been far too many incidents around the country of first responders harming themselves, first responders losing their jobs when they shouldn’t, first responders acting out because of things that they have seen,” Hood said.

Mental health stigma runs deep in general, but even deeper in the fire service.

“Hard to get guys to say when they need help and not see that as a sign of weakness,” Burke said.

“We’re in a macho industry. We’re Type A individuals, so we’re not normally going out looking for help from people,” Hood admitted.

He’s changing the way they debrief after serious events and adding trauma therapy dogs to the rosters.

“This would be a working dog that is trained to deal with traumatic situations. We know medically, scientifically, pets give us hope. Pets lower our blood pressure, pets decrease our heart rate. Pets are comforting. So we’re going to start a program here,” Hood said.

He acknowledges that the mental health battle will only become more fierce if it’s not addressed out in the open.

“Our city’s getting bigger, call volumes going up, society is far more violent than it was when I started,” Hood said.

So the effort to keep firefighters emotionally and mentally resilient must be prioritized.

It’s a goal Burke is proud to be a part of.

“There’s been a lot of stuff already in place from our staff psychologist to peer support team to CIT training. Just make that more visible and then try more progressive things such as the, the dog program and having somewhere to go to on your phone, whether it’s through that app or just one landing page,” Burke said.

Burke’s poem continued: “Full disclosure. We are firefighters. We do love our job. We are trauma jugglers wading through a daily flood of tragedy. We joke about each other’s close calls, bloodied medical gloves, laughing invincible together. We laugh loud and hard and get real quiet when no one’s around.”

Burke’s video was circulated during the mental health week.

It was a different show of bravery, in the form of vulnerability.

“My phone was blowing up with guys reaching out, thanking me and like I said, telling me their stories and, you know, so it’s been it’s been really cool,” he said.

“Full disclosure,” Burke said toward the end of the video. “I am okay. Seriously, I am. I see a good therapist, I ask for help when I need it. I just wish more of us did.”

Right now, Burke is getting his masters in clinical mental health counseling. He wants to become a therapist, to be on the helping end for fellow firefighters.

About the Authors:

Courtney Friedman is a KSAT anchor and reporter. She has an ongoing series called Loving in Fear, confronting Bexar County’s domestic violence epidemic. She's also covered Hurricane Harvey, the shootings in Sutherland Springs and Santa Fe, and tornadoes throughout Texas. She’s a California native and proud Longhorn who loves calling SA home.