Some in the firefighting service say that the very image, stoicism in the face of danger, masks a dark secret — that firefighters themselves endure intense emotional turmoil, and that some take their own lives, unable to cope with that pain, reports CSN Chicago.
“I’ve been on this job going on 25 years, and I was only aware of one suicide, and that was 15 years ago,” says Chicago battalion chief Dan Degryse. “Then, in a period of ’08 and ’09, we had seven suicides in eighteen months. In 2010, we had four in five months.”
Chicago is certainly not alone. Nationwide, the numbers have alarmed even hardened veterans of the firefighting fraternity.
“When I started looking, and doing research, the numbers really started to pour in,” says Palatine fire captain Jeff Dill.
Since 2011, Dill has tracked national numbers, and his workshop, “Saving Those Who Save Others,” is booked solid into next year.
Dill has studied nearly 500 suicides, including 58 each in 2012 and 2013. There were 11 last year in Illinois. So far this year, Dill says, there have been 21 nationwide.
“My personal belief is that once we put that uniform on, we brainwash ourselves into, ‘this is how we have to act, this is how the community expects us to act.’ We cannot show any type of weakness,” Dill says.
While no one is sure why the numbers are high, all agree that the cumulative effect of repeated tragedies, often begins to eat away at even the toughest heroes.
“Our firefighters and paramedics see the type of trauma and type of things that nobody else would see in a lifetime,” says the Chicago Fire Department’s Elizabeth Crowe. “They see some horrific things.”
Crowe notes that Chicago has made an effort to begin addressing the issue before new recruits ever enter the fire service. The future stresses of the job are addressed at the city’s fire academy. And at yearly Family Focus days, firefighters are encouraged to share the challenges of their jobs with family.
“If there is an event, we tell them, go home and talk to your families,” she said. “They may not want to hear the details, and it’s probably not important that they hear them, but let them know, this was a tough one.”
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