By Jeff Dill
In the past five years, the increase in articles written, new training organizations developed, and individual presentations on behavioral health, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and even suicide has been unbelievable. When Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance (FBHA) first presented to the Philadelphia (PA) Fire Department in December 2011, the amount of awareness being brought to behavioral health was very limited, especially on something so taboo has suicide.
As the founder of FBHA, a retired fire captain and a licensed counselor, I wanted to track and validate these tragic events in hopes of never forgetting our lost brothers and sisters. Our goals were educational workshops, a scholarship program for children of firefighter and emergency medical technician (EMT) suicides and create a weekend retreat called “Those Left Behind” for family survivors of firefighter and EMT suicides.
The validation process of these tragic events has become the cornerstone of FBHA. We never use names or organizations unless family members give us permission. We have never called any families when we hear of a firefighter (FF) suicide. Confidential reports come in off our Web page (www.ffbha.org). We don’t even know who sends them because the e-mail addresses are washed. But we do ask in the submitting report for the name of the department. Then I call the fire or emergency medical service (EMS) chief to validate the reports. Sometimes, family members call us to report their tragic loss. Either way, it is confidential. As of November 11, 2016, I have spoken to more than 800 fire or EMS chiefs or family members to validate our reports.
What I have learned is that it comes with a price!
When we first got into this job it was to help others during their time of need. We were trained to be the best firefighters, survive on fireground, watch out for each other’s back. This also came with a price. They never told us in the fire academy about the images we will carry for the rest of our lives. They never advised us that because of the things we see or do that many of us will turn to addictions to ease our pain. How about the numerous brothers and sisters who suffer from PTSD? Did anyone advise you about the sleep issues you will have for the rest of your life? Let’s not even discuss relationship issues associated with divorces rates. So, the price we pay for dedication to our community, in being firefighters, can be costly to many.
Now, reflecting on behavioral health and to all of those who have become involved in educating on PTSD, anxiety, stress, suicide, be aware of your own self-care. In addition, when I present our workshops across the United States and Canada, I hope to inspire attendees to become involved. Create behavioral health programs, join Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) or Peer Support teams, but also know this comes with a price. When you lay your heart and soul out to help others, it can become overwhelming. Not only are you going on those same calls, dealing with issues in your own personal life, but you are taking on your brothers’ and sisters’ issues as well, especially as Peer Support Team members.
I speak from experience. When you have heard more than 800 stories of your brothers’ and sisters’ suicides, when you have had numerous people call you and then find out that they have taken their lives, it does make you ask, “What did I miss?” A few years ago, a firefighter from Canada called me on a Sunday night to ask how he can get FBHA to come to his department for workshops. I have fielded hundreds of these questions for workshop requests. We spoke for 35 minutes about what we offer. He mentioned that he had dealt with an issue years ago but wanted to ensure his department members knew what to look for in each other. I promised I would send him our brochures, which I did. He sent me an e-mail thanking me for the brochure. Two days later, he shot himself. It made me think, ‘What did I miss?”
FBHA recommends for those involved in Peer Support or CISM teams a policy that includes mandated counseling for team members. You should see a counselor twice a year just to check in to see how you are handling the stress. We believe we can handle so many things as firefighters, but know this: Dealing with mental health issues or behaviors caused by anxiety, stress, PTSD, depression, addictions, suicidal ideations, or other issues is more difficult than any task you can be assigned on fireground. You cannot go it alone. If your incident commander asked you to take a fully charged 2½-inch hoseline to the fifth floor by yourself, you would have to say you couldn’t do it. So, why do we believe we can handle addictions, depression, PTSD, suicidal ideations, or whatever you may be suffering from by yourself? You would have a better shot of humping that deuce and a half to the fifth floor than handling behavioral health issues.
Here is the good news though! We have come a long way in education in five short years. Numerous lives have been changed or saved. FBHA recommends you become involved in creating behavioral health programs because the return on helping your brothers and sisters is tenfold. Just ensure there is self-care to any program you become involved in.
We all have dedicated our lives in some fashion to helping others when we joined the fire service. Now is the time to place that same dedication in helping ourselves. If you are experiencing issues that you don’t understand, please find a qualified counselor or chaplain who understands our culture. Contact us at FBHA ([email protected]) We can assist you in finding someone. You’re worth it, and you deserve it!
Jeff Dill founded Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance (FBHA) in 2011. He travels the United States and Canada holding workshops to teach firefighters about behavioral health awareness and suicide prevention. FBHA is the only known organization that collects and validates data on firefighter and EMT suicides across the United States. In addition, FBHA holds classes for counselors/chaplains, family members, and those preparing for retirement. He holds a master’s degree in counseling from Argosy University (IL). Dill is a Licensed Professional Counselor and a retired captain at Palatine Rural Fire Protection District in Inverness, Illinois.