Can we halt firefighter suicide?

Rick Markley, Editor-in-Chief

In the past two weeks we've had two more firefighter suicides, and those are only the ones we know of. Sadly, that's not what's remarkable.

Firefighters take their lives far too often — more than those who die in the line of duty. But we know this. It's a problem that we've been over before, yet the solution is elusive.

Both Indian River County (Fla.) Fire Rescue Battalion Chief David Dangerfield and Mountain View (Wash.) Fire & Rescue firefighter Ken Ward were found dead from self-inflicted gunshot wounds in remote areas. Both were white males over 40 years old — this has been a leading demographic of suicide victims for several years.

Both were veteran firefighters who undoubtedly had responded to their share of traumatic incidents. Both left behind loved ones, family and children. Again, it's a familiar and heartbreaking story.

Yet, several things did strike me as remarkable.

The first was how happy they looked in published photos. And that was even more so for Chief Dangerfield, whose Facebook page is still active. Of course Facebook isn't an inaccurate look into someone's life, but Chief Dangerfield comes off as genuinely happy.

In his final post that's now been read by thousands, he touches on his struggle with PTSD, tells those with loved ones suffering from it to get help and offers his love to his firefighting crew.

That post is most likely why the story of Chief Dangerfield's death was read by so many. Which is another remarkable thing about these suicides; that story was read by more people on our site this year than any other.

If there's any silver lining to Chief Dangerfield's death, it is that firefighters stopped what they were doing and paid attention. It could be a sign that we are seeing a legitimate shift in our attitudes and beliefs about firefighter suicide — a shift away from blaming them for being weak to understanding the depth of their struggle.

The question becomes how do we move to and beyond that level of engagement for every firefighter suicide? And how do we move that high level of engagement into actionable, measurable suicide prevention efforts?

In some regards, Chief Dangerfield and firefighter Ward are a tale of two tragedies. One had the attention of a line-of-duty death, while the other gained no more notice than most other firefighting news stories.

And that may hold the key to getting the upper hand in this battle and saving firefighters' lives.

The surest method to reducing the number of firefighter suicides would be to elevate them to LODD status. That means operating on the presumption that a firefighter suicide is job related, offering full firefighter funeral and benefits and having a full-blown NIOSH investigation.

That last component is crucial.

If every firefighter suicide leads to a careful examination of the circumstances surrounding that death and department policies and practices — and those reports are made public for us all to learn from — we'll see real effort thrown behind lowering the instances of firefighter suicide. It's worked for reducing fireground deaths and is making a difference in cardiac-arrest deaths.

Yes, such a move would cost a lot of money. Yes, it would be met with stern resistance much like efforts to deny that firefighter cancer is directly linked to the job. But those things worthwhile are rarely easy — and giving firefighters 30 or 40 more years to enjoy their families and friends because they didn't fall to suicide is worthwhile.

Reclassifying firefighter suicides as LODDs won't happen overnight. But it needs to be our long-term aim if we are serious about ending our brothers' and sisters' suffering.

In the short term, chiefs and officers can create policies and programs to mitigate stress and PTSD as well as a culture that removes negative stigmas associated with mental health issues. And individuals can be their brother's keeper by watching for trouble signs and reaching out to them before they are overcome by despair.

Here are some resources that can help yourself or a fellow firefighter.

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