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Firefighter’s Story an Example of Challenges for First Responders in Dealing With Addictions

Ocala firefighter Jeff Werthmuller said his "day of reckoning" came when he responded to a structure fire without his gear – and most of his clothes.

A captain in the department, he’d been passed out on shift after an off-duty binge of "drinking and drugging" when the call came in. He staggered to a truck, the wrong one at first.

"Dude, you got no clothes on," another firefighter told him, but Werthmuller said he didn’t respond.

After the call, where his colleagues found only some smoke, a chief came to him: "Are you messed up? Are you drunk from last night?"

Those questions led to the first step in Werthmuller’s recovery from alcohol and cocaine addiction, a story he told Friday on the second day of the Florida Partners in Crisis annual conference.

Werthmuller went into a program designed for law enforcement and first responders at the Florida Recovery Center, a part of University of Florida and Shands Hospital.

"My life was slowly falling apart without me knowing it," he said, often clasping his hands chest high and with an occasional catch in his voice.

Rick Wagner, law enforcement liaison with FRC, said public safety providers like Werthmuller are a challenge because they must be strong in their jobs and don’t want to admit weakness.

Even others question, he said, "Why can’t they deal with their own problems?"

Wagner said he works to keep departments informed about police officers’ or firefighters’ treatment progress and facilitate people returning to full duty, not "desk" or "soft" duty, which might carry more stigma.

Werthmuller is back on the job after nine months, demoted from captain. He admits the only reason he became a firefighter was because they work one day and have two days off – which suited his life as "party guy."

In a 12-step program after in-patient treatment and therapy, he believes telling his story is important to his success. His father, in fact, heard him tell it for the first time as part of the audience of the 1.5-hour session.

Werthmuller told of drinking for the first time as a sixth-grader, of partying more and more, adding cocaine in college – living the life of a popular athlete. But, he said, he suffered from dyslexia and couldn’t read.

"I didn’t know how to deal with anybody," he said. "What I liked to do was drink."

Werthmuller also talked about half-hearted attempts at getting help before the fateful fire call, but said he never before admitting to using drugs.

He said he’s early in his recovery and used an analogy about construction, where he has yet to hammer in a 2-by-4.

 “If I get a strong foundation, I’m going to build a really big house,” he said, smiling.