LAKE MARY, Fla. — According to some studies, more firefighters die from suicide than on-duty related causes.
What You Need To Know
- Some studies show that more firefighters die from suicide than from on-duty related causes
- According to the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance, only about 40% of firefighter suicides are reported
- Lake Mary Fire inspector Tina O’Brien is a peer support specialist and mental health coordinator for her fire department and works to reduce the number of firefighter suicides
Spearheading that effort is Lake Mary Fire Inspector Tina O’Brien.
She makes checks fire safety systems at construction sites so they’ll be ready for firefighters to use in an emergency.
After working for years in responding to emergencies, the career Lake Mary firefighter now works on the front end of keeping people safe.
“A lot of what my job is, is prevention — prevention from problems with buildings after they’re occupied,” O’Brien said.
But she’s taken her job of prevention to a whole new level by trying to prevent one of the worst things that can happen to a firefighter.
“What we try to do is focus on is how we can prevent some of the mental health problems that can arise by creating tools to build resilience,” she said.
Unfortunately, there’s a good reason for O’Brien to do this type of prevention.
According to a study done by the Ruderman Family foundation, more firefighters die from suicide than from on-duty deaths.
And according to the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance, only about 40% of firefighter suicides are reported, meaning the real numbers could be much higher.
This is why O’Brien always keeps her office door open and why her office doesn’t look like one you would expect a fire inspector to have.
“I wanted to make my office a welcoming place where someone could come in and feel comfortable sharing and talking if they’re going through any difficulties,” she said.
O’Brien is a peer support specialist and mental health coordinator for her fire department.
So she’s ready and willing to listen to anyone who sits across from her, and needs to talk things out.
“And even if it’s just to chit-chat about the good things going in on life, then I’ve created an atmosphere where they’ll feel comfortable coming back if they’re going through a struggle of any kind,” she said.
This is exactly what first-responder care experts say firefighters need.
Experts like Kelly Savage with Advanced Recovery Systems, who puts on mental health and wellness webinars for first responders across the country.
“So, I coordinate all that from my computer and we have 100, 200 attendees, sometimes 300 depending on the topic,” she said.
She says firefighters need peer support and mental health resources just as much as any soldier or law enforcement officer.
Especially when she says 80% of their calls are medical, and not fire related.
“Whether that’s car accidents on I-4, or the side of the road where people are very badly injured, drug overdoses, drawings, especially with children or where pediatrics are involved, are extremely traumatic for these first responders,” Savage said.
O’Brien knows the trauma they deal with on a daily basis.
But it wasn’t until she heard of two Central Florida firefighters taking their own lives in 2016, that she felt compelled to act.
“I sat next to my chief, at that funeral, and following that I went to him again and I said ‘we’ve got to do something,’” O’Brien said.
Which, she said, is why there’s always a place to go, and a person to talk to for Lake Mary firefighters.
But there are still many fire departments in Florida that don’t have peer support teams.
In fact O’Brien’s team has even deployed to help other departments dealing with a crew member’s suicide.
She said she hopes more departments will understand how important it is and adopt one themselves.
Advanced Recovery Systems has resources specifically designed for first responders if they are struggling with suicidal thoughts and/or addiction.