Suicides Among Firefighters and Paramedics
By Gary Ludwig
This is not an easy subject to write about. Throughout my 33-year career, I have seen too many of my fellow brother and sister firefighters and paramedics commit suicide. You may have known someone you worked with who has also committed suicide. It happened in St. Louis more than once during my 25-year career there and in my 5 ½ years working for the Memphis Fire Department it has happened more than once also. Besides St. Louis and Memphis, I hear from my colleagues occasionally of a firefighter and paramedic suicide from around the country.
Those who are left behind try to figure out what happened to drive the person to this point and sometimes blame themselves for missing warning signs that they remember later.
In the cases I have been involved in and those I have know of from around the country, most suicides are really not about death. Most firefighters and paramedics do not want to die; they want an end to the incredible emotional pain and misery they feel. In the general public, some people commit suicide because of a terminal disease or chronic pain. But this is not usually the case with active firefighters and paramedics.
One of the more notable paramedic suicides involves the rescue of baby Jessica McClure in Midland, Texas in 1987 after she fell down a 18-inch wide well. CNN was a fledgling news station at the time and there was almost round the clock coverage of the rescue attempt that lasted 58 hours. Robert O’Donnell is the paramedic who is mostly credited with saving baby Jessica. O’Donnell received tremendous media coverage as a result of the rescue. In 1995, eight years after the incident and suffering from post-traumatic shock disorder from the rescue, he committed suicide.
My research shows that no one truly tracks the number of suicides among paramedics, firefighters, or even police officers. Some say the reason why is that because suicide overall — the cause of nearly 11 of every 100,000 U.S. deaths annually — is underreported.
USA Today did an article in 2003 and found that at least 100 police officers and paramedics committed suicide while on the job between 1992 and 2001. They did their research by delving into Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) records.
But OSHA only tracks on-the-job deaths – not those occur off the job. Moreover, many states do not track deaths by occupation, making it nearly impossible to study suicide rates of paramedics. USA Today reported in the article that one of the few such studies, published in 2002 year, found that New York City police officers were no more likely to kill themselves than other New Yorkers of comparable race, gender and age. The study covered deaths between 1977 and 1996.
A newspaper article earlier this year in Sydney, Australia about a paramedic committing suicide gave the statistics that one paramedic commits suicide each year in the region, and the rate of one in 3,500 paramedics is almost three times higher than the general community’s one in 10,000.
In early 2009, the Chicago Fire Department started to look at suicides of firefighters. According to union president Tom Ryan in a Chicago Tribune newspaper article, in the last year there were six suicides and undisclosed number of attempted suicides among Chicago firefighters and paramedics. The Chicago Fire Department has approximately 5,000 firefighters and paramedics.
Being a paramedic has a tremendous amount of stress. In some systems, not only is there the high run volume, but the difficulty of making life-and-death decisions on some calls. If you are a paramedic that works for an administration that is ready to discipline you for the slightest mistake, the stress factor increases tremendously. No paramedic should live in fear that they have to walk on eggshells for fear of being suspended for the slightest mistake. Remember, paramedics do things wrong for three reasons, they are unaware, they are unable, or they are unwilling. An administration should only be using discipline as a tool to correct behavior if a paramedic is unwilling to perform correctly.
The important thing for people in our profession is to support each other. It may not necessarily be the stress of the job that makes a firefighter or paramedic commit suicide, but it could be all the stress in their life, coupled with stress on the job. They might be experiencing financial problems, marital or relationship problems, or a substance abuse problem. Couple one of these with stress from the job, and some firefighters and paramedics may feel the only solution is suicide. There is a lot that can be learned when you work with someone for a long number of hours in the day and sometimes you may be the only person they can talk to. Do not ignore some of the things they are saying to you. It may be even necessary to report it to a supervisor so that professional intervention can be available for the person.
Unfortunately, suicide is a final solution that there is no turning back from. Once the act is complete, there is no other alternative. There is no undoing it! It is important that firefighters and paramedics recognize when a fellow professional is in need of help and do everything possible to get them that help since a successful suicide cannot be undone!