It’s going to happen so you might as well get it out on the table now
I should admit I’ve never seen a complete episode of Rescue Me, ever. I’ve seen bits and pieces at the firehouse, but I have never intentionally sat down to see one episode from start to finish. I’m not much of a television person but I understand the gist of the show and its borderline real-world/Hollywood scenarios. It’s entertainment, so be it.
When I was at the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation’s behavioral health weekend, the clip below was presented on the second day by Dr. Patricia Watson, former Navy clinical psychologist and current Senior Education Specialist with the National Center for PTSD. As it started I admit I thought it was going to be a play on some firefighter, machismo stereotype but I was wrong. Take a moment and watch the video.
Despite the scripted emotion the natural sentiment is real and so is the conflict about what you and others think of the suicidal victim. More recently I was part of a NFFF working weekend to create strategies for dealing with firefighter suicide. Dr. Watson and other experts in the field were on hand to present their latest findings and how they have changed the approach toward the fire service and the tools counseling professionals will need. It was encouraging to see the advances being made and proven in the military. During that time I spoke with a firefighter who was dealing with the suicide of a coworker. A complete surprise, his shift was reeling from the loss AND the attitude of others in the department. He described to me an “it’s over, so move on” stance that was making a bad situation worse. In the end the situation was successfully resolved and became a learning tool for the whole department that I’ll have the privilege to share with you later this year.
However, the biggest issue I noticed from this friend’s struggle and what I have learned and listened to during those working weekends is this:
A fire department and its members will never be able to successfully deal with the suicide of one of their own if they don’t first talk candidly about suicide.
I’m not saying that everyone has to have a Kleenex session but they do need to flesh out how members would feel if one of their own took his or her life. The company officers and chief officers need to determine how they will manage the stress among the house and how the department will interact with the family. Everything from the simple death notification to the funeral should be up for discussion. We tend to believe that if a firefighter dies, then the department will assuredly step in and take care of the funeral, the wake, the family and memorial anniversaries but a suicide changes all of that. Willie Wines of the Iron Firemen blog has shared his personal struggle and regardless of what you think of it, what Willie experiences is real. If you show up for work some day and learn the Lineman or Tillerman took his own life the night before, your shift will have to deal with surprise, guilt, rage, sadness, shame and the list goes on. The family might want a department funeral or the chief’s office might want to sweep it under the rug. What was your best friend on the job might now be labeled a coward by the others working with you.
There is quite a bit I have lined up to write about this subject, but I strongly believe that until you and the shift have that ‘get it all out on the table’ discussion, very little else is going to make a difference. While there are no hard numbers on firefighter suicide, the current data suggests that when compared to the general population, the fire service is expected to see three times as many suicides as they do line of duty deaths.
Your department should plan now on how you will deal with a firefighter suicide.
“A New Approach to After-Action Reports” Carey, FireRescue Magazine June 2013
Bill Carey is the online public safety news and blog manager with PennWell Public Safety.