Beyond all the rules and regulations, beyond all the laws and ordinances lies a much higher and much more relevant standard of living. Back in the day before everything was catalogued and categorized, they were called natural laws, God’s laws of nature, or God’s natural law. They didn’t need to be written down, they didn’t need to be enforced; they were widely understood and mutually upheld. When they were violated, it was universally understood; no one needed to hold a grand jury, no trial was necessary, no one needed to validate or invalidate the outcome. Most of these rules you’ve understood as a child. Someone once said that no laws should be written that the average man could not read and understand. Today, we live in a society that violates that and many other natural laws with impunity.
As firefighters, we represent one of those intuitively understood natural commitments, one of those natural laws. We protect perhaps the most significant of all the natural laws: that when one of us is in danger or in need of help, help will come; that in times of trouble, there is someone you can call even if you are all alone, a stranger in a strange land; and that when we come, you are no longer a stranger, you are no longer alone, your problem is no longer just your problem-it’s our problem. We have sworn to come and help both victim and perpetrator without judgment and without hesitation. We have taken on an ancient burden, one we accept gratefully, voluntarily, and with tremendous humility that we are now and will always be our brother’s keeper.
We have dedicated ourselves to being the absolute best at mitigating problems that most people find insurmountable, whether those problems were created by the dynamic nature of uncontrolled fire or the result of our highly technical way of life having a normal failure that was undetected in the system until its interactions climaxed in catastrophic results. We drill and train diligently to uphold our heritage, combining the virtues of the heroic citizen with those of the unselfish warrior, becoming in the end the devoted national servant.
We believe deeply that our way of life is mankind’s best hope for guaranteeing the peace and security necessary, as Fire Department of New York Chief Ed Croker said, for a man to be able to achieve his great potential. The defense of our communities and its citizens is a great calling. Being a firefighter means accepting the duty of protecting the people, their value system, their material well-being, and one another.
If firefighters are to expect our communities to support and supply us and continue to endeavor to join our ranks, then we must do all we can to earn our communities’ respect for our competence and fidelity to them and one another. Firefighters, having willingly undertaken the responsibility of becoming highly skilled in the dangerous and complex enterprise of firefighting, therefore trust that our communities will provide us with adequate materials and the psychological support we need to accomplish our missions.
Maintaining the strong bonds needed to ensure mutual trust between the firefighter and our citizens imposes heavy demands for the ethical concerns and the moral conduct on our part. But those bonds are light, and those ethical and moral standards are low compared to the obligation we have to support one another materially and psychologically. We strive for excellence. Bertrand Russell said, “The performance of public duty is not the whole of what makes a good life; there is also the pursuit of private excellence.” We often fall short in our pursuit; we get up and, with help and support, we climb back.
But sometimes we feel we can’t come back; we feel we have fallen so far that we feel isolated and unworthy. We feel we are an embarrassment and a failure. We feel we don’t deserve to belong and sometimes, tragically, we feel we don’t deserve to live. That is the desperate feeling that those who have contemplated suicide often express.
Suicide was an epidemic for firefighters in 2014. According to records kept by the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance (FBHA), 104 firefighters/EMTs took their own lives. Since January 7, 2015, the FBHA had documented 227 firefighter/EMT suicides in the past three years. The reasons reported to the FBHA, outside of “unknown,” for these suicides are “marital and relationship issues,” followed by “depression” and “PTSD.”
According to the FBHA, there is no discrimination among ages. We often believe that older white males are the highest percentage of suicides, but the data show not much of a difference in ages. The FBHA believes only 20 to 25 percent of the 30,000 fire departments know to report these tragic events to the FBHA. We need to do a better job of tracking this crisis. The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation is exploring ways to combat this tragedy with a USAF grant, and we must lend any support we can to their efforts.
This is a tough topic. Suicide is very personal, not easy to talk about, and tougher still to understand and deal with. There are many stories of dedicated firefighters, family, and friends who have tried to help and yet came up short, but no effort should be abandoned, because failure is unacceptable. The signs and signals are sometimes invisible to those closest to those suffering, and so often it is the co-worker, the shift mate, the crew who see the warning signs. Like in much of what we do, training is critical, as critical as training in fire behavior, construction, and operations.
There are no National Fire Protection Association standards, no Insurance Services Office or accreditation standards; there is a much higher authority we must adhere to here. We will leave no one behind; we will always be there for everyone-citizen and firefighter, family, and stranger.