As St. Paul counts 6th fire death of 2024, a nonprofit offers services to help firefighters cope

Help for firefighters after trauma

Help for firefighters after trauma

Another fatal fire in St. Paul has devastated a family.

Dennis Ruud says the overnight blaze in the St. Anthony Park neighborhood took the life of his sister-in-law Sylvia and sent his brother, Tom, to the hospital.

“She was interested in cooking … a beautiful person,” he recalls. “I told him I would try to get his hearing aids and glasses, but can’t get in.”

Investigators believe the fire may have been sparked by smoking.

It’s the latest deadly blaze in an already difficult year for first responders.

“I feel like it changes you, but you don’t recognize it,” says Capt. Kyle Bode, a health and wellness coordinator for the St. Paul Fire Department. “I worry about my brothers and sisters and how they’re coping.”

Authorities say six people have lost their lives in fires in the city since Jan. 1 — double what the city typically gets in an entire year.

“It’s a very traumatic event for our folks,” St. Paul Fire Chief Butch Inks explained during an interview in January. “You know we do this for a living, right? It’s our job, but we’re still human beings.”

The chief’s comments came in the wake of a fire — likely started by an unattended candle — that took the lives of four children.

“When you get there, and you end up dealing with a fatality, or whether you pull somebody out of a fire, and they succumb to their injuries later, it almost feels like you lost,” Wayne Kewitsch says.

Kewitsch, a retired Richfield fire chief, says those losses deeply affect first responders.

He’s now the executive director of the Minnesota Firefighter Initiative, a nonprofit that’s provided 1,800 counseling visits since 2021.

“We see a lot of things that a lot of people shouldn’t see, and that can build up over time,” Kewitsch notes. “I think it’s something you carry with you, your entire career and subsequently, your entire life.”

The Minnesota Firefighter Initiative has an assistance program that provides up to five free visits with a trauma-informed clinician — someone familiar with the difficult and stressful work that first responders do.

The group also runs a statewide peer support network, which trains firefighters, including in St. Paul.

“Obviously, you’re trying to do your job and trying to get your work done,” Bode says. “When everything slows down, when you’re sitting there with your thoughts, I think that’s when it kind of hits you, you know?”

He says the St. Paul Fire Department has a peer-to-peer support team, where firefighters can work through what they’ve experienced during a difficult run.

Bode says he’s received peer counseling himself but is also a counselor and a listener.

Those peer-to-peer sessions can range from a simple conversation over a cup of coffee to a chat at the fire station.

“I think it’s good to get that off your chest, and it’s nice to talk with someone who understands,” Bode says. “I feel like if I don’t talk about it, then someone else might not talk about it or reach out for help.”

Kewitsch believes both the peer counseling and the clinical services being made available are making a difference.

“When someone gets to that point where they want that help, they want to be able to talk to someone that understands where they’re coming from, whether it be a peer or whether it be a clinician,” Kewitsch said.