From 2015 to 2017, according to the U.S. Fire Administration, first responders accounted for 1% of all suicides in the country.
In a Monday meeting of the Lewis County Fire Commissioners Association, Mike Goodwillie, a commissioner for Lewis County Fire District 5, said firefighter suicide rates are surpassing the number of deaths occurring in the line of duty.
Scientific advancements in protective gear and firefighting techniques in recent years have improved conditions for firefighters’ physical health, he said.
Now, Goodwillie said, “We really need to address the mind.”
Founded by former Chehalis Police Chief Glenn Schaffer and other volunteers, Lewis County first responders can soon have access to peer support resources for “all things emotional, physical, financial and social,” Goodwillie said.
He encouraged commissioners from other Lewis County fire districts to enact the program in their departments, saying it will not cost anything for firefighters to get involved, but will only charge districts if participants choose to get trained as peer support counselors.
“It’s not always being an expert on every situation, but being an ear to listen and to give them a resource for help,” Goodwillie said. “It’s not just about the bloody, messy calls we see. It’s about all of life’s stuff that we all deal with.”
The program, if enacted by fire commissioners, will give firefighters in Lewis County, volunteer or paid, a person outside of their chain of command to connect with. Organizers in the program will also reach out to individuals in some instances to offer support, Goodwillie said.
Just as law requires for licensed therapists, the program will grant total confidentiality to participants, except for where mandatory reporting of crime or intent to harm applies.
Schaffer is working to secure grant funding for an app to offer resources, too, Goodwillie said. Eventually, the hope is to have additional support for first responders’ relatives, too, he said.
“All of us who work the line, volunteer or paid, have seen trauma. That’s what we do,” he said, later adding, “This program will give your first responder a way to talk about anything. And sometimes, we just need someone to talk to.”