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Firefighter Behavioral Health and Suicide

As a part of the Florian Program Advisory Board, I have the privilege of attending an annual meeting that allows me to hear from some of the best and brightest minds in the area of firefighter behavioral health. The Florian Program is a recent addition to the Rosecrance Institute in Rockford, Illinois, and it focuses on firefighters who are struggling with substance abuse and any other type of co-occurring issue. This program has a group of professionals who understand the firefighter mentality, schedule, and personality. It is one of the most advanced programs for the treatment of firefighters who are struggling from the lifelong effects of experiencing vicarious trauma from the thousands of difficult calls that a firefighter has the potential to face. Every time I meet with this board and hear the stories of what the Florian Program is doing for firefighters I get re-energized about this important topic, and I want to make sure we get the word out about this amazing program. This program is the only one of its kind that focuses solely on firefighters, and there are so many out there who could benefit from it if they knew about it in their time of need. This annual meeting is one of the highlights of my year as I learn more about what we can do to help our fellow firefighters.

As I sat down on the first day and waited for the meeting to start, I received a text which informed me that one of our recently retired Palm Beach County Fire Firefighters had committed suicide. It was a punch in the gut to say the least.  I looked to my left and saw Chief Bobby Halton and Chief Pat Kenny who both have been very outspoken about protecting our firefighters and making sure that we don’t let them get on this path and take their own lives. I looked to the front of the room and saw Chief Dan DeGryse and Father Jimmy Swarthout who work with the Florian Program and are helping firefighters who are struggling. I looked to my right and saw Jeff Dill who runs the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance which is the only program to track firefighter suicides. I announced the suicide to the group as we began which acted as a somber beginning to the discussion on firefighter suicide, behavioral health, and mental wellness. It was a sad and ironic moment to say the least, and it was a reminder to all of us that this is not a theoretical discussion. It’s a real problem that is affecting our firefighters right now. Due to the tireless work of Jeff Dill as the founder of FBHA our board was already aware of the statistics and the reality of this issue. There has been an average of about 90 Line of Duty Deaths in America the past few years with 100% reporting. Jeff states that last year there were over 100 firefighter suicides with ONLY ABOUT 25% REPORTING. That is a huge problem which needs to be addressed immediately! We cannot and must not wait anymore!

Later that day we heard from John Walters who shared his experience in the Florian Program. He talked about the difference it made in his life. As an FDNY firefighter, Jon responded on 9/11 and lost many fellow firefighters. He later suffered significant burns as a firefighter and eventually lost his leg after being hit by a cab while on a call. He has since begun important work for burn victims as an employee and ambassador with Sons of the Flag. He and Ryan “Bird Man” Parrot, a Navy Seal, shared about what they are doing for civilians, military personnel, and firefighters who are suffering from burns. Later we heard from Joshua Jessup and Matt Olson who started the Illinois Firefighter Peer Support Program. They have trained almost 100 peers in the state of Illinois who can step in and help firefighters at their point of need. I have already asked them to come to Florida to do the same training for our personnel as I believe it is one of the single most important aspects to a good behavioral health program. Rich Stack, the president of F.O.O.L.S. International, shared his desire to be a more significant part in training our firefighters in this important area of behavioral health. We also heard from multiple fire departments that have robust behavioral health programs. It was an encouraging and challenging two days as I contemplated all that we are doing and all we could be doing. I was reminded that there are so many areas in which firefighters need assistance.

As the discussions and lessons continued, I could not stop thinking about our Captain who took his life. I received emails and texts throughout the sessions as we discussed the details of the funeral, the what-if’s, and what we need to do to make sure that we don’t see this happen to anymore firefighters.  I talked to my friend Captain Larry Doelling about our behavioral health plan. We have been working on this plan intensely since our return from FDIC. We are only about halfway done preparing this plan, but we decided it’s not ok to wait until the plan is perfect to begin implementing it. It’s imperative that we start with what we can right now. Now is the time for action. There will be details that need to be worked out, but we have to begin now. It’s not acceptable for another firefighter to take his or her life because of the mental anguish and pain faced from running difficult calls. We sent our rough draft to our administration and union and said, “We are ready to start this now.” We aren’t waiting for approval or funds to be set aside to make this program work. We are taking on the challenge to help our firefighters who are struggling with behavioral health issues.

When I returned home, I finally had a chance to speak to the widow of our Captain. I was treading lightly as we spoke, but as we continued the conversation, I realized that she was as passionate about making a change as I was. She had heard about where I was when I heard the news, and I was able to share what we had been working on even prior to this tragic event. She agreed that no other firefighter needs to walk down this same path and end their life due to suffering from the effects of this job. I went from being concerned about how to handle this situation with a grieving widow to being more dedicated to this cause that has been heavy on my heart for the last few years. Her strength of spirit and determination to end this issue that is so taboo encouraged me to move forward and act. And if that wasn’t enough, the first paragraph of an article I read the next day reinforced the importance of this issue: “51-year-old captain of Odessa Fire/Rescue was found dead. . .officials said it was a suicide.” This is not a theoretical issue or a problem that lives in a hypothetical world. It’s real, and it’s a problem.

The champions of the movement to change our view of firefighter behavior health are leaders in the fire service. These leaders (Halton, Kenny, DeGryse, Dill, Jessup, Olson and more) have the passion and a voice to make a difference, but they need help. They don’t need firefighters who ignore signs of trouble or who cover for issues they know fellow firefighters are suffering from. They don’t need more firefighters who are going to look the other way or hope problems take care of themselves. They don’t need more firefighters who think PTSD and mental illness are a farce or are signs of weakness. They need each firefighter to look for signs of trouble in their fellow firefighters and offer help. That help may be in the form of a robust EAP program, a counselor who can treat the symptoms, or even a company officer who takes time out of his or her day to listen. Status quo is no longer enough. We ALL need every firefighter in every department to step up and speak out. We need the individual voices to grow to a roar so that this issue that is whispered about in hushed tones becomes a topic that is discussed at firehouse tables, union meetings, administration meetings, city council sessions, and in firefighter homes. No one should be able to hide and sink deeper into depression as they deal with the job alone. Each of us should have help waiting for us when we need it.

So how do we do this? We become proactive and begin comprehensive behavioral health programs in our departments right away. It doesn’t matter if you’re a volunteer department of ten or a career department with thousands. Start taking care of the problem now. Look at the stats that are available for firefighter PTSD, mental health issues, and suicide. Don’t let one of your firefighters become part of these statistics. Stop it by being proactive and beginning a program now. I am using the parts of the program I like from FDNY, Boston, Chicago, the Illinois Firefighter Peer Support Program and more. I am happy to share what we will be doing with anyone who would like to use it. I am going to be focusing my upcoming blogs on this topic and detailing what we are doing in the behavioral health field. It requires a comprehensive plan and multiple layers which include CISM, Peer Support, Chaplaincy, EAP, Training, and more. I promise to be honest with what is working and what is not. Together we can put a stop to the needless loss of life that is happening at an alarming rate with the fire service. Join with me in taking a stand at your department, and let’s lock arms to fight this important issue.

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