Make firefighter mental health a top priority in 2015

Keeping firefighters healthy and safe is an ongoing battle; getting out in front of mental health issues will go a long way toward that goal

Probably the only thing worse than facing the wife, husband, parent or child at a LODD funeral is being that wife, husband, parent or child. And it is against that memory of staring helplessly at a woman who'd gone just days earlier from firefighter wife to widow that I set my hope for 2015.

The coming year I'd like most to see line of duty deaths and injuries eliminated. I'd like to see firefighter mental health issues treated and firefighter suicide eliminated. And I'll toss in the elimination of all arson fires to boot.

We can and must strive for that brass ring, despite the odds of actually gasping being remote.

After several years of line of duty deaths well below the traditional 100 mark, 2013 saw a sharp increase. That number will thankfully fall for 2014, although not to the 2011 and 2012 levels. We all have work to do in this area.

An encouraging sign on this front was the tremendous support and attendance at what was billed as Tampa 2. Held in February, it was a reconvening of fire service leaders to address firefighter health and safety 10 years after a similar group launched the 16 Life Safety Initiatives.

As I said, there's work to do. But the group I saw gathered in Tampa did a lot more than pay lip service to firefighter safety. It is up to all of us to keep up that momentum.

The report from Tampa 2 was released today; you can read it here.

Another encouraging sign is the vitality of the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance. That group is charged with the unenviable task of tracking and reporting firefighter suicides. That number, in the United States, jumped from 65 to 88 from 2013 to 2014.

You can attribute some, if not all, of that firefighter suicide increase to better reporting. That too is encouraging as it may show a greater willingness to talk about something once seen as taboo.

This year also saw the National Volunteer Fire Council roll out its Share the Load program, designed to prevent firefighter and medic suicides and assist with mental health issues. A 24-hour hotline is part of that program.

This number, 888-731-FIRE, should be plastered in every dayroom. 

Frankly, I see addressing the mental health and safety issue as a greater challenge than addressing the more physical components of line of duty death.

Even if they don't take their own lives, those suffering from mental illness are more likely to engage in behaviors such as smoking, excessive drinking and drug use that will shorten their lives.

Solving this problem is all the tougher as there are no quick, easy fixes once it's diagnosed, and getting to the diagnosis stage is even tougher. We still cling to the belief that mental health issues are more a weakness of character than an illness of body. Yet, the brain is a central part of the body.

If only firefighter depression were as easy as to solve as refusing to move a rig off the pad until everyone had on a seatbelt.

This week we'll enter 2015. It won't ring in any fresh, new start for the fire service. It will be a continuation of the challenges and hard work we faced in 2014 and the years prior.

But, when it comes to trying to keep more firefighters alive, is there any more important or rewarding work we can do?

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