MONTVILLE, Conn. (AP) — Gary Murphy first stepped into the Oakdale Fire Department when his mother realized he accidentally helped start a fire in a field near his house.

She made him go apologize to the chief, Joseph Venditto, who asked a teenage Murphy to tell him all the details, then made him do "community service" at the station, washing trucks and mopping floors twice a week for the better part of a year.

"Whatever they told me to do, I just did it," he said, sitting on a bench feet away from the door he walked through to confront Venditto as a 15-year-old.

Murphy became a member in 1975. At the department's annual banquet this month he'll officially retire as chief after more than three decades in the job.

In his early days as a junior member, he said, fire departments had an "anything goes" mentality, without modern equipment or safety training to back it up.

"'Safety' and 'firefighters' never went together, except probably for the last 15 years," he said. "You were a fireman, you climbed on a roof no matter what."

And many departments, especially volunteer-run ones like Oakdale, didn't take the trauma that comes with being a firefighter seriously.

Despite responding to emergency calls and seeing "everything" at the scenes of accidents and deaths for decades, Murphy said, many firefighters refuse to believe that they need help maintaining their mental health.

He knows, because he refused to believe it, too.

"This really is a job that will tear you up," Murphy said. "The things that you see ..." He trailed off.

As firefighting has become more about saving lives — coming to the aid of elderly fall victims or reviving people who have overdosed with naloxone — and less about fighting fires, the list of possible gruesome, dangerous or tragic scenes firefighters come across during a shift has only expanded.

"Babies and kids are always the worst," he said.

But even as the department has acquired safer, more modern equipment, he said, the 20 or so active members haven't reckoned as a group with the psychological trauma that comes with seeing those things.

Murphy retired from his full-time job with the Department of Correction at Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Center two years ago.

It was only a few years before that when Murphy's wife recognized the psychological damage his career as a firefighter had done.

"Everybody here handles it differently," he said. "I handled it differently for many years, until I couldn't handle it anymore."

She encouraged him to seek professional help. He did, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder shortly after, and continues to see a therapist regularly.

The local hospitals have long made a point of sending counselors to speak with firefighters after they respond to a bad call, he said. While those sessions continue today, and the techniques have become more advanced, the department's members didn't always take it seriously, Murphy said.

"They sit you around in a circle, and they say 'And what did you do?'" he said. "Then you say 'Oh, I was the chief, I did this, I did this, and they go around the room, and the class was over."

"People would go like, 'Oh they got debriefed, they'll be fine,'" he said. "But you put it in the back of your mind, and you move on."

That often wasn't the end of the story inside the members' minds though, Murphy said. Call after call, the trauma can build up.

"You can keep stacking it in there," he said. "Then finally it gets up to here, and you have nowhere to put it anymore. And that's when people start to break, and they start having problems."

Murphy said despite his own PTSD diagnosis, the culture inside the fire house and a stigma against seeing a mental health professional still kept him from discussing those problems with his fellow firefighters.

"Even though I have been going for five or six years, there was still a stigma attached to going," he said. "I'm not ashamed to admit it — I think it's helped me tremendously."

More recently, Murphy has tried to make that conversation come more easily among the department's members.

"If somebody thinks that someone's having an issue, I get calls all the time, they say 'Hey, Chief, we had a really bad call.'

"We'll talk among ourselves, like 'Check on this guy, maybe give him a call.' If they're really young, we'll call their parents."

It's the department's junior members who can take the tough calls the hardest, he said.

"I've called many parents, saying 'Look, your kid saw a body today.' We try to shelter them, but you know you can only shelter them for so long."

Murphy said he has spoken to Micah Messer, the department's president, who plans to take over as chief when Murphy retires, about keeping his firefighters' mental health a top priority.

Messer might still be met with resistance if he tries to do that.

"Some guys you talk to, and they're like 'Hey, Chief, I don't want to hear it, I don't want to be a part of that.' They don't believe in it."

But extending a hand, Murphy said, is sometimes the best thing a chief can do.

"If somebody here felt like they needed to have it, I give them the name of the people they should go see, if they want to," he said.




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