Firefighters extinguishing heat of mental battles with faith and community

They’re on the front line, battling blazes throughout our nation. Yet the traumatic calls can add up, leading many firefighters to deal with a fire within.

“As a first responder, we do see a lot of stuff and it does affect us,” Troy Holtorf, Phoenix Fire Department firefighter, said. “We’re the first ones to help a complete stranger but we’re the last ones to help ourselves.”

“We’re the first ones to help a complete stranger but we’re the last ones to help ourselves"

- Troy Holtorf, Phoenix Fire Department firefighter

According to the National Fire Protection Association, in 2016, there were 69 firefighters who died while on the line of duty. In the same year, there were 99 firefighter suicides.

“As firefighters, we operate in darkness of the smoke a lot on fires but also the darkness of the world—the violence, the shootings, the school shootings, Las Vegas,” Nick Petrucci, retired Phoenix firefighter, said. “We really feel for those victims and those families. But if you always look back you’ll see a first responder, a police officer, a firefighter, EMT’s, medical people. So, we just believe we need an outlet because those things affect us, too. PTSD is a big thing. A lot of firefighter suicides, we lost four or five guys in the last five years, to suicide.”

It’s one of the reasons retired Phoenix firefighter Nick Petrucci formed a faith-based group for first responders 14 years ago. It’s called “Koinonia,” a Greek word meaning fellowship. Petrucci said he wanted a place for firefighters to be able to talk about the traumatic experiences they saw as first responders so that it doesn’t pile up in their minds.

It’s also a place for firefighters to talk about what’s going on in their personal lives.

Firefighters and Faith

Retired Phoenix firefighter Nick Petrucci formed a faith-based group for first responders. It’s called ‘Koinonia’, a Greek word meaning ‘fellowship’.  (Fox News)

“I think there’s a lot of hurting brothers and sisters on the fire department, many of whom we don’t know about,” Holtorf said. “I think firemen tend to keep things in, tend not to talk about it a whole lot. It’s our pride; it’s what we’re wired to do…I think you take enough hits, your armor gets some chinks in it and all of a sudden it wears you down mentally.”

The group started with a few buddies at Petrucci’s home. Petrucci said they were going through some things at the station and wanted to turn to their faith, reaching a point in their lives where they had nowhere else to go. 

It’s transformed into a group of more than 180, meeting in different locations each week. Composed of mostly firefighters and other first responders, Petrucci hoped this group could be an outlet and a place for “brothers” to be real with another.

Firefighters and Faith

“It’s like, no more (suicides), we have hope and our hope is in Jesus Christ,” Petrucci said. “It’s not about religion. It’s about a relationship—that they have a personal relationship with Christ because when you’re laying in your bunk at night and things are closing in on you, all those thoughts are coming, you have a place where you can go and talk to your Heavenly Father and ask for help."  (Fox News)

“We can come and be vulnerable with each other, we can be real, we sit and open God’s Word, look for our healing through God, and lift the name of Jesus up,” Petrucci said. “We have praise and worship. We do a lot more, too. We actually go out and serve the community. We have a trailer with event barbecues and any time a firefighter or police officer gets hurt or injured, we’ll go and do fundraisers for those events to help raise money for the families.”

Holtorf said some of the coping mechanisms firemen use are drugs, alcohol or substance abuse. The group hopes this can be a positive alternative to that, encouraging anyone to come as they are.

“I can go to my brothers, tell them what’s on my mind, there’s no judgmental things there,” said Jerry Witt, a retired Phoenix firefighter who’s struggled with PTSD after serving in Vietnam and then later as a firefighter. “We can pray together, we can talk Scripture together, and I can just be myself…We’ve laughed, we’ve cried… but that’s what I personally need and I think that’s what a lot of guys need. Instead of just man up, cowboy up—open up. Open up and be yourself.”

"We’ve laughed we’ve cried… but that’s what I personally need and I think that’s what a lot of guys need. Instead of just man up, cowboy up—open up.

- Jerry Witt, retired Phoenix firefighter who’s struggled with PTSD after serving in Vietnam

With each call, firefighters turn out and suit up to protect them from the heat of the blaze. For this group, with each call, they relate that with putting on life saving spiritual armor to help protect them from the heat of each mental battle—turning to the Bible verse of Ephesians 6:13: "Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand."

“We need protection,” Witt said. “We’re exposed to so much, it’s very important that we put on that armor that the fire service gives us. But, it’s more important that we put on the armor of God so we can’t be attacked. We’re attacked in so many different ways. When you have your armor on, God’s with you and you’re protected.”

“This group, we’ve learned our 9-1-1 is the good Lord—that’s who we call on"

- Troy Holtorf, Phoenix Fire Department firefighter

Petrucci said this group means ‘everything’ to him. He’s seen lives impacted. He mentioned a firefighter, who had cancer and lived three years longer than expected, bring others to the group; and how even in this difficult time it brought his family together. He’s also seen marriages restored, as well.

Firefighters and Faith

With each call, firefighters turn out and suit up to protect them form the heat of the blaze. For this group, with each call, they relate that with putting on life saving spiritual armor to help protect them from the heat of each mental battle--turning to the Bible verse of Ephesians 6:13: "Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand."  (Fox News)

Koinonia is even overseas, as firefighters on active duty are having Bible studies in Afghanistan.

“I think it’s the power of the mind,” Holtorf said. “If you’re constantly seeing things, all that stuff’s up in your brain, if you don’t get it out, you’ll cope with it in other ways and we’ve seen that with firemen. Suicide is definitely a real thing, especially with first responders. So, I’ve learned personally just to talk. Just be open, be honest.”

Firefighters and Faith

“When you put on the full armor of God, it’s just like putting on a full set of turnouts,” Holtorf said. “You have a helmet, a shield, a jacket—which is like a breastplate, a pair of pants, boots, you have a shield—which is the shield of faith, your sword—which is the Word of God—is kind of like your pipe puller, your ax."  (Fox News)

Firefighters and Faith

 (Fox News)

"That’s what these guys have all taught me—is hey you’re not alone. We’re all in this together.”

- Troy Holtorf, Phoenix Fire Department firefighter

Charlie Lapastora is a multimedia reporter based in Phoenix, Ariz.