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
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.
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.