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Firefighter/EMS Suicides Outnumbering Line of Duty Deaths | U.S. PATRIOT NEWS & REVIEWS

Firefighter/EMS Suicides Outnumbering Line of Duty Deaths

We need to have this conversation. In fact, everyone needs to have this conversation and finally bring to light some very disturbing facts:  Firefighter/EMS suicides are outnumbering line of duty deaths.

We are only a couple of weeks into this New Year, and we have lost three of our brothers and sisters in the line of duty. But what’s more sobering is the fact that we have lost an additional four to suicide. Some even posted goodbye messages on Facebook before taking their own lives. No one really knows when the trend started, but it’s been tracked since 2013.

And it’s a tough statistic to accurately nail down. Most agencies are not forthcoming with reporting the information that one of their own has ended their life. Still, it doesn’t change the alarming increase in incidents.

The Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance (FBHA) – widely known for providing behavioral mental health awareness with an emphasis on suicide prevention and getting resources to firefighters and their families – is largely the recognized keeper of these grim numbers. In 2016, 89 firefighter deaths in the line of duty were recorded. And 130 committed suicide. In 2015, 135 firefighters committed suicide, and 89 lost their lives in the line of duty. The number was a bit lower in 2014 – 114 suicides and 92 line-of-duty deaths, but you can clearly see the trend. These numbers are confirmed by the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA).

Why are our firefighters killing themselves? The short answer has to do with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but both the FBHA and the USFA say more factors are at play here. Family and money issues combined with the fact that firefighting/EMS is a high-stress profession. In fact, CareerCast.com just completed their annual survey of the most stressful careers in the nation. First, of course, are our enlisted active duty military personnel. Firefighting was number two. Number two! Ahead, even, of commercial airline pilots (the complete survey results can be found here). Career Cast factors in environment, life risk, and on the job hazards, among other things.

Think about what they see on the job everyday. I don’t need to give grim details here – they walk into horrific things, and are expected to remain calm and professional and get the job done. We may not break down that day, or even in the days to come, but see enough on shift, and it happens eventually.

I’ve been a paramedic in an inner city district for 20 years. I still have a call that haunts me – gives me nightmares – and always will. Christmas Eve morning 2002, I was called out in the still dark hours for a pregnancy. Delivery was in progress by family members. When I got there, there was no electricity in this freezing house, and firefighters were holding flashlights over my head so I could get to work. I got on my knees in time to finish delivering. And it turned out to not only be one baby, but two. A teen mom, only 20 weeks along with no prenatal care.

They were born not breathing, no pulse. No bigger than the palms of my hands. We made a quick decision to do some BLS care, while other paramedics explained to the family the tiny chance for survival these twins had. And then their little tiny mouths started breathing, and we did what little we could, racing them to the nearest neonatal capable hospital (which was two minutes away, thankfully). It was so cold, and I remember holding them inside my uniform shirt against my skin to keep them warm, holding blow-by oxygen near their faces. They died in the ER. Their mom named them ‘Angel’ and ‘Miracle.’ When I can’t sleep, it is their little faces I see.

There are hundreds – thousands, maybe – of these stories. And I have news for you … work this job long enough, and you will have some level of PTSD. I’m not ashamed to admit that I see a grief counselor to deal with the stressors. But others won’t ask for help.

Why is that? Because firefighters are supposed to be heroes; they give the help, they don’t ask for it. And that’s where the dirty little stigma comes in. What if firefighters admitted they needed help dealing with the things their eyes cannot unsee? Would their brothers and sisters in uniform look differently at them? Would the administration take them off of their rigs and put them on light duty, until they’re fit to go back out there? Would they be fired, or forced to retire?

So what now? How do we begin to fix this?

It starts with changing the culture, from the administration down. Standards for ongoing programs for firefighters need to be created. Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) debriefing is wonderful right after a very bad call, but we all know it’s never ‘The Big Bad One’ that causes first responders to snap. It’s cumulative. So the programs need to be regular, and PTSD and suicide need to be mentioned more than just a brief gleaning as part of the continuing monthly education we attend.

And we desperately need awareness, instead of turning a blind eye on a peer that just might be in trouble. Blow the lid off of this thing. Start a dialogue, keep it going, and make sure your station members know that they’re not alone – so many of us are going through this – and that they have a comfortable forum to speak. There are resources, and it’s time we started using them. I can’t stress this enough:  If you see something, say something. I’ve posted it before, but I’ll share it again:  The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255.

Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.

Leah Dallaire

Leah G. Dallaire is a highly accomplished freelance writer, editor and consultant with 28 years of experience. She has also concurrently been a paramedic for 20 years; the last 17 she spent serving the citizens of Pinellas County, Florida, which has a call volume of about 209,000 runs per year. She holds an M.A. and a B.A. in Writing & Literature from Union University. She has also just finished her first novel.
Leah Dallaire
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3 thoughts on “Firefighter/EMS Suicides Outnumbering Line of Duty Deaths

  1. Hello Leah,

    I have read your article with interest. I have been blessed to have retired from public safety and the armed forces in just the last few months.

    A couple of things that I have noted since I entered the field in 1979 is in the type of people who have volunteered for these professions. I realize that this is not the place for me to write volumes, so, in the interest of brevity, I will intentionally leave much out of my prose.

    Those in genuine need notwithstanding, I believe that PTSD is an over used diagnosis and that it is frequently abused by those who serve in the crafts, so to speak. Far too many in our culture have been conditioned to feel self pity, to not accept responsibility and to enjoy being on the receiving end of peer/public sympathy…especially if there is potential for remuneration.

    In my estimation, one major source of stress is the atmosphere in the stations. For much of my career, the PD and FD were the safe zones where people could actually unload, whether that was during an honest “tail-board” session, quiet time or the occasional case of fisticuffs. These were the places to vent, laugh and cry without fear.

    Then the PC atmosphere crept in and became malignant. The sanctuary we once had eroded into a place where we met, started a shift and walked on egg shells until the end of the shift.

    We hired more Alan Alda types not because they were the best applicants; they were just less likely to do anything that would offend others, including criminals and that, in turn, helped to reduce internal complaints and law suits. In my opinion, this led to a significant increase in frustration and inter-personal stress on the job, which then affected off duty relationships.

    The gallows humor that saved so many from going insane became a violation of policy since it might offend someone…like another firefighter. Shutting down genuine communication leads to more stress. We hire folks in part because of their honesty…and then tell them they dare not speak the truth for fear of reprisal.

    Losing a structure, losing a gun fight or only doing the minimum to help a patient started becoming more common and acceptable…especially to senior leadership/management. The result has been more sympathy, more money to spend on “feel good” programs and a steady line of applicants who are not and will not be spiritually, physically, mentally or morally prepared to remain in the field and in the fight.

    Then, at different times over the decades, sincere people wanted to help preserve the health and well being of those on the line. This eventually led to professional services and a growth industry of mental health counselors, both well intentioned and self serving, in my opinion.

    As a profession, we are quite good at funerals and memorials. Funerals are cheaper than major lawsuits to city management and the bean counters. Proper selection and constant realistic training require long term investments in the people who are hired for the mission. But which is actually cheaper for an agency in the near term?

    Telling everyone that they are heroes just because they live, breathe and show up for duty is akin to saying that every player gets a trophy, just because. When those who start believing their own hype meet with certain realities, the results are often not what they had expected. When a firefighter has more hours swinging a mop and cooking meals, than they have putting out fires, they may be disappointed in their performance at “the big one”.

    As a whole, relatively few firefighters get working structures on a regular basis, the majority of peace officers never fire a round in order to save a life and the same applies to our military personnel. A lot wear a uniform and go to a so called combat theatre, but, it is a small percentage who actually go into combat. To me, EMS personnel might be the exception.

    So, I wonder, are the number of suicides actually due to the sliding scale of horrible and gut wrenching calls and experiences? If that is truly the case, then the suicide rate among the citizens of Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq must be unfathomable.

    I do not doubt that public service can have a negative impact on one’s mental health. I also tend to think that it has less to do with the actual performance of the jobs we volunteered to do than what happens with the majority of our waking hours, both on and off the clock.

    Practically all of the servants that i have served with were most happy and healthy when they were doing the job that they trained for…including engaging and killing those who requested that level of personalized service.

    I do not know for sure, however, I think that it may be a bit too convenient to identify the job as the primary source of suicide. We may find it valuable to shine the light into some darker and uncomfortable corners in order to help save lives.

    I responded to your article because I have a genuine interest in preventing the loss of our people’s lives. I know what has worked for me and those that I care so much about…that is to start by filling that spiritual void inherent in us that all too often left unattended. We build from there.

    Respectfully,
    Allen

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