In a profession in which traumatic experiences are commonplace — and not often talked about — James Lang, ex-chief of the Malverne Fire Department, wanted to make sure his fellow firefighters were getting the support they needed. He created a mental health program that inspired what current Chief Kevin Garvey described as “a movement” for local fire departments.
“If the membership is more aware of what to look for, what to be aware of, maybe we can all just keep a better eye on each other,” Lang said.
Lang speaks openly about having experienced anxiety and depression during his 27-year career as a firefighter. Constant involvement in traumatic situations as a first responder — witnessing serious injuries, death and the resulting grief — takes a toll.
“You play the ‘would’ve, could’ve, should’ve’ game,” Lang said. “What if I got there earlier? What if I found him sooner? What if I didn’t grab the hose first and I did the search first? “That’s kind of what led me to where we are now, and what I’m doing for the Fire Department.”
Lang developed a yearly mental health training for firefighters, in which he details for them the signs and symptoms of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, all conditions that first responders often experience. For his initiative, Elks Lodge #1, in Lynbrook, named Lang the 2023 Firefighter of the Year.
“It’s an awareness program,” he said. “When you see a change in someone — their attitude or demeanor or their attendance — it never hurts to pull someone aside.”
Despite being at a higher risk for trauma-related mental health issues, first responders are unlikely to seek support, according to numerous studies documented by the National Institute[//S?//] of Health. That’s partly because of the tough-as-nails culture of high-intensity atmospheres like police and fire departments, Lang explained.
“The old-school guys, they’ll have their old-school opinion on it,” he said. “‘We deal with it by going to the next emergency, by having a beer.’ Even with me, that worked for a while. And then it didn’t work.”
The firehouse is like a second family to him, Lang said. He joined the Fire Department as soon as he was eligible, at age 18, following in the footsteps of his father, Ex-chief Richard Lang Sr., and his older brother, Ex-chief Richard Lang Jr. The drive to help people is in his blood. Now Lang wants to be the resource for others that he needed when he was struggling.
“It’s what I could have used at the time,” he said. “I just hate to see someone else go through some of the experiences that I went through.
“When I speak of something, I speak of it through experience,” he added. “And maybe I can show a sign of hope, that if I was able to move past whatever it was — whether it was that burn victim, or that car accident where we could have cut the person out quicker, whatever it may be — I was able to move past that.”
After developing the program for the Malverne department, Lang discovered that Ronald Roeill, ex-chief of the East Rockaway F.D., had a similar initiative. Together they brought their training to the other departments of the county’s Fourth Battalion — Lakeview, Lynbrook and Rockville Centre.
Now the five departments are putting together standardized training, education, support hotlines, and more for any member to use. “It’s gone way beyond what I ever imagined,” Lang said. “It’s wonderful that all five departments are now going to be on the same page.”
He said he hoped his awareness program would help firefighters look out for one another — and also look inward, to see if they would benefit from seeking some support.
“It might even turn a light bulb on for someone themselves,” Lang said, “and say, wow, I’ve been drinking a lot lately, or gambling a lot lately, or spending a lot of time” in the firehouse. “Maybe I should re-evaluate.”
Lang, and a handful of other firefighters even gave out their own phone numbers for colleagues to use. He emphasizes that he is not a psychologist, but he knows that having someone to talk to can make all the difference.
“There have been several instances where a phone call was placed, and someone’s listening,” he said. “And that’s all we’re looking to do.”
Lang refuses to let the stigma surrounding mental health hinder his — or his department’s — well-being. No one, he said, should be ashamed of how they feel.
“The experiences that I’ve had, the difficulties that I’ve experienced and the help that I’ve gotten from professionals is not something that I’m ashamed of, nor something I want to keep inside,” he said. “If I can help one person a day, no matter what the environment is — but particularly in fire service or as a first responder — it warms my heart.”