ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - The tough situations firefighters deal with on a regular basis can leave permanent scars that a former firefighter is hoping to heal.
Zach Maddox spent seven years as a firefighter answering the call and saving people at the worst points of their lives.
The sleep deprivation, stress and what he saw every day on the job, he said, eventually became too much.
"You see a lot of things and you kind of just push it down and you deal with it certain ways, but there’s a stigma that you’re a man, and you know, if you’re having a hard time you just suck it up because we’re all suffering and having to compartmentalize a lot of that stuff inside," he said. "Eventually, it just grows and grows and grows until it really starts weighing on you."
He said he started drinking a lot to try to be able to fall asleep.
"I knew a lot of times when I would go to sleep I’d have nightmares so you have anxiety about going to sleep," Maddox shared.
Maddox left Marion County Fire Rescue in November 2020 and worked for the Villages Fire Rescue for a year and a half before leaving the job altogether.
He said at the time, he was scared to speak up and ask for help.
"I had an attitude of I didn’t really want to talk about it because I was afraid that I was going to let guys down thinking that if I’m not here mentally 100 percent, they’re not going to be able to trust me," Maddox said.
"I had the mindset of, ‘I’m tough. I can handle it. This doesn’t bother me. You see a bunch of things, oh it’s not a big deal.’ Well, eventually that kind of kept going deeper and deeper and for myself, I started really battling depression. I started getting anxiety and it started to take a toll on my home life as well," Maddox added. "Those thoughts started getting louder and louder and it got to the point where I was ready to make a decision and the thing that stopped me was I didn’t think it was fair for my wife to have to come home from work and now her home isn’t a home anymore."
About six months ago, Maddox started Healing Heroes Guide Co. He said he grew up as an outdoorsman hunting and fishing and found peace when he was outdoors.
"The more time I would spend outdoors, the more time I was able to cope with a lot of things I was going through and find some peace about it and find that passion of, if I can heal by doing this maybe someone else can," he stated.
Through Healing Heroes, Maddox travels across the state and takes first responders fishing, hunting, hiking, or whatever other activity they want to do outdoors. He said it gives them a place to talk to someone who has been through the same thing.
"If I’m not going to be a fireman anymore, at least I still want to help out that community because there’s a lot of guys who’re out there struggling and they don’t really know what to do. Their backs are against the wall or they don’t have any options, but if I can give somebody an option of, ‘hey, you know, let’s go out and go try to catch some fish,’ in their eyes maybe it’s, ‘ok cool it’s a break,’ but in my eyes, it’s an opportunity to maybe have that conversation," Maddox explained.
"Maybe pull some things out and a lot of times just being able to talk about it to somebody that relates and that has been there and understands and has gone in those hard times but has come out of it kind of is an inspiration and knowing hey I’m having a bad day today but tomorrow could be better," he said. "That’s my whole main mission is these guys train their whole careers to train others, but who’s going to save them. My whole mission statement is if I can’t help the guys on the front lines, I’m going to help the guys in the background."
Maddox said it’s free and confidential. He’s working on starting a nonprofit as well and wants to offer therapy and training opportunities for the families of first responders.
"The families are the ones that have to live with the ticking time bombs at times, but if we have some training that we can recognize certain things and mood changes and how to address certain situations … I’m not looking for you to feel sorry for me. I don’t need the validation," he said. "I just need the, ‘hey it’s ok. I’m going to be real with you and have a little bit of compassion of I understand kind of what’s going on and I understand right now is in a bad place, but we can get you out of that,’ and for the family to be able to do that and just kind of go ahead and stop the problem immediately so it doesn’t, you know, cannonball into other things is a huge mission."
Maddox said in the last five years, four of his colleagues took their own lives.
"I am my brother’s keeper. That is one thing that is big about this is we need to have each other’s backs. We need to be able to be there for each other," he shared. "When you go through trauma with somebody, you create a bond that’s unbreakable, so if we can heal together, that’s another bond that’s not going to be shaken."
Fire departments across the Bay Area offer several mental health resources to their first responders as well. Several fire and police departments are a part of the Tampa Bay Regional Critical Incident Team.
The group offers first responders and emergency service workers in the area a "comprehensive, multi-component, peer-driven, organized crisis intervention response for the reduction and control of the harmful aspects of stress as a result of a critical incident."
Tampa Fire Rescue’s spokesperson said they also have critical incident stress teams that they activate after bad calls they go on. They also offer an Employee Assistance Program for men and women to access mental health resources and they work with the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay.
St. Pete Fire Rescue’s spokesperson said they became very proactive when it came to mental health in 2017 after a retired firefighter took his own life. They partnered with the International Association of Firefighters and sent 13 members at a time to peer support training to identify if someone may need help in 2018.
About a week after the training, one of their firefighters took his life. The spokesperson said after that, they had to make sure their men and women were taken care of.
They partnered with Tampa Bay Psychology Associates. Members of St. Pete Fire Rescue can get as many free appointments as they need and it’s all confidential.
The department also has two chaplains, a critical incident stress management team and an EAP. They also offered peer-to-peer help through Florida Firefighters Safety and Health Collaborative to Marion County Fire Rescue this week. Marion County lost two firefighters in the past month.
Marion County Fire Rescue’s Fire Chief said he reached out to the Florida Fire Chiefs Association to utilize their mental health strike teams to help his department’s members as well.
If you or someone you know needs help, you can also call the suicide crisis lifeline at 988 and speak with someone 24/7.kai
For more information on Healing Heroes, visit https://www.facebook.com/MaddoxOutdoors or email Zach Maddox at Zmaddox.firstname.lastname@example.org.