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Cutting the Onion on Firefighter Depression and Suicide

     

Friday, January 18, 2013

Cutting the Onion on Firefighter Depression and Suicide



F.I.R.E.S. Within (Firefighter Increased Risk Exposure to Suicide)
by Shannon Pennington
North American Fire Fighter Veteran Network




North American Firefighter Veteran Network (NAFFVN) has been working on outreach to our firefighterveterans since 2002 regarding depression and suicide intervention and prevention. This is not a pretty subject to even mention in a fire house or around the kitchen table unless it is about the civilian death or attempt that took place on a shift recently. Why is it that we can do the post mortem discussion around the table on them, but when it comes to us we clam up? All who read this know and have some sort of understanding that suicide is a sickness in the individual that ended up with that person dead. No coming back from that. As we have looked around the fire service community of late, one cannot but help notice that the body count of firefighters who have taken their life, for whatever reason, is on the rise.



Fire service leaders have finally started to ask the questions that need answers. For me, one of the most obviously stated questions I have ever heard came from a chief in a round table discussion on the subject. He stood at the table in his white shirt, with radio on his hip, cell phone attached on the other, beautiful gold badge and gold name tag on his shirt and announced to the room, “all I want to know is why are my men killing themselves? Can someone tell me?”



There, it had been said or rather dropped like a laser bomb directed at a select few. I will not say where or when the group was assembled, but I will say that it was high level horsepower in the American Fire Service who were there to look at and study the problem. In his department, he had over a thousand firefighters on the line. He also had a full time psychologist on staff for over 19 years. He had programs for those who needed them in counseling and behavioral health, inclusive of family support and pastoral intervention. Yet, in his mind, the ease of the disease, as I put it, continues to rise and his people are taking their lives. As a side note, what was not said by him when he stood up to comment was that his suicide rate was in excess of 15 in a short period of time, all of which were not fully documented but known about within the inner circles of his department. To my way of thinking, there in lies the dirty secrets of denial and deception about the profession as volunteers or as unionized or non-unionized full time firefighters.



NAFFVN fully believes in our work and from exposure to these events (in discussions around the country) that Firefighter Suicide stemming from Firefighter Depression is a form of protest and psychological desertion on the battlefield of our community where we deliver our services. Those who have taken their lives leave behind a story. We need to read their story in order to understand what we missed and are missing in prevention.



How is it that we can deliver service to our citizens on such timely and grand scales to the minute, and then miss the EARLY WARNING SIGNS IN OUR OWN COMMUNITY? It is a simple yet complex answer. In the complex, rest assured that the scientific types are studying the problem. They want to help and are helping. See the NAFFVN website, the Thomas Joiner, PhD segment on the Dr. Phil show, along with front line information on depression and suicide. In the simple sense, the psychological desertion comes when the firefighter is cut out of the system or stands alone and feels as if his or her world is literally falling into the basement ashes of a life not worth living. They zone out or begin to act differently, and it is those key changes in behavior that are the early warning signs. You can know about them and learn what those signs are through education.



Many years ago, as a young firefighter in an IAFF local, I was taken aside by a senior member while we were washing our cars inside the firehouse. He said that I was worth saving and he was going to have a talk with me. Yes, that did get my attention as the only saving I thought I needed at the time was staying dry while the two of us washed our vehicles down. We proceeded to talk while washing and here is the nugget of what he said. He noticed that I had been doing the baseball thing with the crews around the house and other houses in the district. I was also going out regularly after second day shift for wings and beer and would stay out late. He said the fellows liked me and wanted me to run in their crowd and that if I kept on doing that, I would end up dead or an alcoholic. I was stunned. I felt that I knew what I was doing and had enough sense to curb it when needed. The shift continued and we went off duty. All through the night at home, I kept thinking what it was he had said to me. He was senior, an excellent firefighter, a man I could trust and who had taken me into a few “hot ones”. So what was he really saying?



Future nights or days out with the baseball and hockey, tunajuice (two and a juice) wing nights and I began to count. Sure enough, he was right. I dialed back my thinking and lifestyle to a more comfortable pace with others who had come to the same conclusions about our choices with our firefighter friends. I noticed those who went full steam ahead, their marriages and family as well as career were ruined. You have all seen that happen. Then, there were those who committed suicide. You know those people, too, but in your thinking say, “just don’t know what happened there or if we, or I, had only known.” Well we somehow, on looking back, did know. The early warning signs we already have seen in discussion about the civilians who took their lives.



So, like the chief who stood up and asked a question, we now must ask our questions as well and then take a solid “look at the man [or woman] in the mirror”. We need to cut the onion on the subject and shed the tears, to make salt on it instead of waiting to give condolences to the family at funeral time. We keep the faith in our work delivering the necessary services to the people in our communities. We need to keep the faith with each other. We are our Brother’s Keeper here. And as the stench of death from depression and suicide causes us to stand up like the chief and ask the question WHY? WHY are we killing ourselves? WHY are so many good firefighters choosing to exit life instead of learning from the lessons of those lives we have saved? That life, including our life, is worth protecting and worth living.



Guarding our minds from depression as a result of our work is worth the effort. It is something we can take on by understanding how a perp can enter our minds and deliver death blows to our thinking.



Gaining the upper hand is tough work and we need to stay low and go to wide angle thinking here as we advance on the seat of this fire that is burning us up. Begin in the beginning. Use full P.P.E. and a full on discussion around your family at work and at home. Let’s take the fight back to the seat of the fire and kick it where it belongs. Too many tears over the years, the fire buckets are filled too full and we know what we, the individual, need to do. Reach out to your brother or sister on the front line. Tell them you’re there and that you care for them. Man up! Woman Up! STAND UP for EACH OTHER. EMBRACE. GIVE A HUG. GIVE A SHIT. Cause brothers and sisters, we ain’t doing ourselves any good by not looking in that mirror and changing the way we shave or how we put our makeup on and that IS WHAT IS KILLING US.



As a final note. We need to be reminded of our need to be counted amongst those who care about each and every one of us in service as firefighterveterans or first responders. By the power of one firefighterveteran at a time, choose to stand up, choose to be counted, choose to reach out, choose to consciously care about each other. We are in this fight for LIFE. Choose Life! As life has chosen you to serve in the best job in the world.



Let’s make it better. Let’s extinguish the “F.I.R.E.S. Within” through understanding depression and suicide as it attempts to take some of us out of life. The challenge is there, the clock is moving forward with the hands pointing at the front lines and those in the “rear with the gear”, to come up with some working answers on prevention.



As we advance from here wearing our full P.P.E. inside our heads and hearts we know that the path will continue to have loss. Our aim should be to reduce those losses. We can do it. We must do it. We WILL DO IT.



Stay Safe.
Shannon H. Pennington
North American Firefighter Veteran Network



About the Author: Shannon Pennington is the Executive Director of the North American Firefighter Veteran Network. Shannon is an author of several working papers on stress in the first responder community in Canada and the United States. He is a retired PTSD survivor after serving in the Canadian military (regular and reserves) and as a 26 year career line firefighter/medic. He currently runs the web site for NAFFVN as an educational outreach to first responders with information that is up-to-date regarding occupational stress and recovery from Post Traumatic Stress. NAFFVN has offices in Washington State and Alberta Canada.




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