Firefighter Suicide: It Can Happen Anywhere

BY ERIC H. MADISON

Longmeadow is a New England bedroom community in western Massachusetts. About 16,000 residents occupy nine square miles. Its large homes, groomed lawns, and historic town green are some of the reasons Longmeadow is one of the more desirable communities in western Massachusetts. Our firefighting force is typical for a small community: Twenty-two career firefighters are responsible for the town’s emergency medical services (EMS) and fire emergency responses. On average, we respond to about 2,300 calls a year; 65 percent of them are for EMS.

In October 2011, Longmeadow was in the bull’s-eye of a “nor’easter” storm. Winter had not yet settled in, and many trees were still holding a full umbrella of leaves. The storm brought more than a foot of heavy wet snow. The results were the loss of electrical power for the entire town; every street was closed by downed trees or power lines, and it would become a weeklong emergency management challenge for the community.

In the ensuing days, the fire department responded to more than 200 emergency calls, including four house fires and the rescue of many homeowners who were injured in attempting to clear down trees from their yards. Sometimes, the results were tragic and devastating. It was a strenuous time for our small fire department; but at the end of the week, I couldn’t have been more proud of the way our force performed, meeting extremely high demands for service. Everyone worked long hours, handled numerous emergencies, and performed miraculous rescues.

A couple of weeks following the storm, one of my firefighters knocked on my office door and asked if I had a few minutes to talk. Mike was one of my best firefighters-a veteran of more than 20 years-one of those guys a chief can count on to get the job done. Rarely was there a structure fire, a rescue, or an auto extrication at which Mike wasn’t elbow-deep in the job at hand. He came into my office and closed the door (a strong indication to me that this wasn’t an average meeting).

I asked him what was wrong, and he paused. It became more evident that he was visibly upset; something was terribly wrong. “Mike, what is it? What’s wrong?”

He looked up. I could see tears starting to well in his eyes. He was shaking, and he started to speak.

“No more 911 buzzer, no more blood in the snow, and I can’t stand to see another kid cry. No more.”

As he spoke, he cried more, shook harder, and became more distant. This continued for 30 minutes, and he showed no signs of stopping. He was having a breakdown in my office, and I couldn’t stop it!

After attempts to calm him down, I realized that he needed immediate help. I loaded him in my vehicle and brought him to the local trauma center. He was admitted into the emergency department and later was sent home with a handful of prescriptions and referrals. In the following days, he went to several appointments, only to be disappointed with each of them. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and referred to clinical social workers and psychologists. At some of these appointments, the practitioner cried more than he did as he spoke of the calls he had been on. All of these trained professionals knew nothing of what being a firefighter was all about and were not prepared for the tragedies we routinely encounter.

I have been a chief for 15 years, and I have always taken pride in the way I provide for my firefighters. They are well-trained, well-equipped, well-adjusted, and motivated firefighters. Their safety and well-being have always been my top priorities: “Everyone goes home.”

However, weeks after the emergency room visit, Mike sat in my office with his wife, pleading for help. Nothing was working. He was haunted by images and flashbacks, and he wasn’t sleeping, eating, or living a normal life. It was then that I felt the most powerless, the most frustrated I have ever felt as a chief. It was obvious I was not providing for this firefighter. What should I do? Where could I send him? I assured him I would do some research, call in some favors, and find a way to help him, and so I did.

In the months following, Mike worked his way toward recovery. He spent a couple of weeks at the Brattleboro Retreat’s Uniformed Services Division in Vermont being treated for PTSD. This was followed up with practitioners, licensed clinical social workers, and even eye movement desensitization reprocessing (EMDR). He was the most determined guy I knew, committed to his recovery so he could return to the job he loved so much-firefighting. However, after about a year, it became apparent to us both that his complete recovery was questionable and his return to firefighting was not in his best interest. We began the process of filing for a disability retirement with the state’s retirement board.

As I filled out the paperwork for his disability retirement, I came on a question that caused me to pause: Please list and describe any incidents that may have caused or contributed to the employee’s condition. What really would cause a firefighter in a quaint small New England community to suffer from PTSD? This is Longmeadow-not New York, Chicago, Boston, or Los Angeles. How could this happen here? So I researched. What I found was a surprise even to me. In his 20 years, Mike had seen it all in our little town. He responded to fatal car accidents, dead children calls, decapitations, person vs. train calls, and suicides by every way imaginable-all this in our little quiet community!

Mike and I had many conversations during his recovery, and I often wondered privately whether the personal qualities that made him so effective at his job were the same qualities that caused his suffering. He was a compassionate person, so willing to lend a helping hand to anyone in need. Social and economic standing meant nothing to Mike. A person in need was a person in need. It was that simple. Helping others in their time of need was his calling, and he did it so well. In fact, as he worked toward recovery, he began to go back to school. His objective was to help and treat firefighters who suffered from PTSD.

In January 2014, just four months after receiving a disability retirement, we lost Mike to suicide. It devastated my department, causing a deep sorrow among the troops that is still not healed today. For me, it was a failure to protect one of my firefighters-that vow we all take when we pin on the gold badge. It has taken me a long time to get over this tragedy, if you ever really get over it. But there are so many lessons here that really need to be shared with my fellow chiefs, fire officers, and firefighters.

We are losing firefighters to suicide at an alarming rate. The Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance reports 61 validated responder suicides in 2012 and 62 in 2013. These are just the ones reported and validated. How many more go unreported? In July 2014 alone, two firefighters in Massachusetts died by suicide. Why isn’t the fire service doing something about this? If we lost 62 firefighters to failed equipment, poor procedures, or building construction, we would be commissioning task forces, making code changes, and adjusting procedures. But somehow losing these firefighters to suicide is acceptable? It’s time the fire service community wakes up and begins to deal with the realities and challenges of firefighter suicide. Remember, “Everyone goes home!

PTSD is impacting our workforce, and we are doing little about it. How many in your department are suffering silently? Do you as a chief officer have the resources to help one of your men or women suffering from PTSD? Does the culture in your department allow someone to ask for help? What are you doing to prevent PTSD in your department? We need to recognize PTSD as a real injury to our firefighters. It’s not a weakness. It’s not a failure. It’s an injury that afflicts our workforce, causing pain and suffering for them, their families, and our departments. If you don’t recognize PTSD as a threat to your workforce, then you’re not doing everything you can to protect your firefighters from the hazards of the job.

The fire service has a longstanding tradition of taking care of the families of our fallen brothers and sisters. Many states have survivor benefits programs, and the U.S. Department of Justice administers the Public Safety Officers Death Benefit program. But these programs fall short of taking care of our brothers’ and sisters’ families when they fall victim to PTSD and suicide. Legislation passed 30 or more years ago didn’t recognize PTSD for what it is, nor did it recognize suicide as a hazard to public safety personnel. It’s time for a change in the fire service and in these legislated benefits. PTSD is real. Suicide among those so afflicted is real. How many firefighter families are we leaving uncared for?

I call on all of my fellow chiefs to make changes in their houses, in the fire service, and in their hearts. Either we are committed to protecting our firefighters from the hazards of the job or we are not. We can’t be selective. We need to recognize all the hazards that our workforce faces and do something to protect them. It’s our responsibility-it’s our job! Recognize PTSD; recognize suicide as a threat to your workforce. Consult the references below to learn more about it. It is a hidden cancer within our fire service, and we must stop speaking about it only in whispers. Trust me when I tell you-it can happen anywhere, and it’s our job to take care of them!

REFERENCES

St. Petersburg College, “The Fire That Burns Within: Firefighter Suicide Prevention,” http://firefightersuicide.spcollege.edu/.

Everyone Goes Home®, “Suicide: What You Need to Know, A Guide for Fire Chiefs,” http://flsi13.everyonegoeshome.com/SuicideGuide_Chiefs.pdf.

Facebook, “Firefighter PTSD Community,” https://www.facebook.com/FirefighterPTSD.

Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance, http://ffbha.org.

Firestrong, “PTSD,” http://firestrong.org/Default.asp?p=PTSD.

PTSD Support Services, “Recognizing EMTs, Firefighters or Police Officers with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder,” http://www.ptsdsupport.net/emt.html.

ERIC H. MADISON is a 35-year veteran of the fire service and has been the chief of the Longmeadow (MA) Fire Department since 2000. He is a past president of the Western Massachusetts Fire Chiefs Association and of the Hampden County Fire Mutual Aid Association and a former member of the Western Region Homeland Security Advisory Council. He serves on the Massachusetts Board of Fire Prevention Regulations.

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