does Superman go when the cape comes off? Stress, post-trauma resources for
fire fighters, police
March 03, 2011
Fire Department when his son Sean took his own life on June 3, 2006. Sean had
suffered from depression and anxiety disorders since the age of 5. He was
twenty when he died.
Kenny let few people in the department know of his son’s death other than his
deputy chief and administrative assistant. He needed to talk to someone, but
couldn’t because of an internal struggle with his own soul.
Many people trusted him with the safety of their friends and loved ones, but
knowing that he couldn’t do the same for Sean tore him apart.
“I get paid to save people,” said Kenny. “That’s what I do – that’s what I’m
supposed to be good at.
“And here’s the most important thing in my life, and I’m failing.”
Fire fighters – along with policemen and emergency response personnel – are our
supermen. They are the people we rely on to protect us and save lives when we
But our saviors are often victims, too.
“I’ve got to be able to come out of the phone booth with the cape on if an
emergency hits,” Kenny said. “If I get trapped in that phone booth with my own
struggles, I can’t open the door. I can’t come out.”
After Sean’s death, Kenny said he spent “as much time wearing the cape as I
could” so he didn’t have to go back and look at what he saw as failure in the
most critical area of his life. He continued to save the day for other people,
improving the department and building morale.
“But at the end of the day,” he said, “if you asked me if I would trade all of
that to have my son for an hour, I’d do it, hands down.
“Just one hour to see him again.”
Personal trauma also extends to those who aren’t relatives, but instead, are
members of a courageous fraternity.
Illinois lost nine firefighters in 2010, including two in a Dec. 22 extra-alarm
blaze on Chicago’s South Side, the city’s deadliest fire in more than a decade.
Ten police officers died in Illinois last year, the most of any state. Chicago
lost five officers, all in the line of duty, and four to shootings.
“It’s like a brotherhood, because we’re all doing the same things trying to do
this job called law enforcement,” said Beverly Jackson, director of the
Professional Counseling Service/Employee Assistance Program for the Chicago
“In Chicago, if an officer is seriously injured or killed in one area of the
city,” Jackson said, “the rest of the officers don’t have to know that officer
to feel that pain.”
Following a fatal or non-fatal shooting, the CPD requires mandatory counseling,
follow-up and officers are given time off. Overall, the level of administrative
involvement is based on individual needs, she said.
Jackson stressed the importance of allowing an officer time to process an
incident and noted that gunfire is not the only cause of post-traumatic stress
“There are more kinds of trauma than just shootings,” Jackson said. “They find
horrible tragedies, elderly people, children. It’s things they see on a
Police officers, fire fighters and other “life-savers” want to feel like they
are making a difference, Kenny said. “You want to feel like something very
“But unfortunately, there are loads of times that we’re in those positions, and
we do absolutely everything we were trained for,” he added, “and do it 100
percent perfect, and people still die. People still suffer.
“And you struggle with, ‘What am I doing this for?’”
Jeff Dill is battalion chief of the Palatine Rural Fire Protection District and
founder of Counseling Services for Fire Fighters. He travels throughout the
country educating fire department personnel and counselors on the importance of
sensitivity to the trauma fire fighters suffer, as well as the harrowing
experiences they face on the job.
Dill said he is seeing a number of older, retired firefighters taking their own
lives, unable to healthily deal with the transfer of their time and energy from
the fire world to the real world.
“Unfortunately, I don’t believe some have ever been able to do that,” he said.
“And they might be carrying some kind of depression or post-traumatic feelings,
and eventually commit suicide.”
There is also reluctance by many fire fighters to seek help, according to Dill,
because of a fear of showing weakness or a concern that doing so may hurt their
chances at promotion.
“We give help,” he said, “but we don’t ask for help.”
Dill said his ultimate goal is to break this cycle and ensure that every fire
academy in the U.S. has some kind of behavioral health program. “As an officer,
you should know all your resources,” he said. “And it’s okay to say, ‘I need
some help,’ before it gets too far.”
It’s a lesson that may have saved Kenny’s own life – a life he has dedicated to
the memory of his son.
Kenny is currently the assistant executive director of the Illinois Fire Chiefs
Association, and leads courses and seminars on how to properly address mental
health challenges in the fire fighting profession.
“Statistics show that the more you talk, the better chance you have of
overcoming feelings,” he said. “The more you internalize it, the more likely
that something negative is going to be the outcome.”
©2001 – 2010 Medill Reports – Chicago, Northwestern University. A
publication of the Medill School.