Anyone in the complex drag-line of EMS has heard the call go out, “person down.” We dispatch it, jump on the truck and roll to it, police zip to the scene with lights and sirens blaring in response. None of us knowing who or what we will find when we arrive at an address in response to this call. Other than finding a child down in full arrest, there is one other site when arriving on this call that can wrench at your gut like no other…when the person down is a fellow member of service and they have taken their life. Nationally, 98 firefighters have taken their own lives so far this year.
In August of this year I was on duty when a member of our staff took his life. The bright smiling youthful star with what all outward perceptions would say had everything to live for – gone in an instant. The heart gripping ripples of grief and secondary trauma went through our staff like a brick thrown into a calm lake. The lingering questions: Why did this happen? What went wrong? Why couldn’t WE save him? Why didn’t anyone know he was this depressed? And on and on the monsoon of questions went and linger. For a hand-full of us, we will never forget the image of our teammate in his last moments.
I sent out a request to the top five Fire/EMS Divisions in the country in the hopes of gaining a few words on a subject that in times past almost seemed like a “closet” issue, not to be discussed even around the water-cooler let alone in a public forum. To date, I have no responses. In EMA there is a popular saying, “Failure to prepare, is preparing to fail.” We need a stronger and more resounding “vocal chorus” to hum the tune loud and clear, “NOT ONE MORE FIRE/EMS/DISPATCH LOSS FROM SUICIDE!” To give you an idea of the size populations served in some jurisdictions and square foot of response area some fire departments serve please see the points below:
New York City (New York) Division of Fire, according to 2010 Census figures serves a population of approximately 8,175,133 in 302.643 sq. miles.
City of Los Angeles (California) Division of Fire, according to 2010 Census figures serves a population of approximately 3,792,621 in 468.67 sq. miles (residential and rural).
City of Chicago (Illinois) Division of Fire, according to 2010 Census figures serves a population of approximately 2,714,856 in 227.635 sq. miles.
City of Houston (Texas) Division of Fire, according to 2010 Census figures serves a population of approximately 2,100,263 in 599.589 sq. miles (residential and rural).
City of Columbus (Ohio) Division of Fire, according to 2010 Census figures serves a population of approximately 787,033 in 217.169 sq. miles. While I have no responses from the above jurisdictions regarding this information, I can relate that my hometown Division of Fire has 70 Engine Companies, 27 Ladder Companies, 15 Heavy Rescue Companies, 69 Medic Units and 18 Battalion Chiefs at the ready to respond to the residents of Columbus, Ohio and surrounding areas.
Consider this; after you dial 911 for help the first persons on scene to provide emergency care are either the police, fire or paramedic responders (often a combination of all three threads of the EMS drag-line in unison). If there is a shooting, these are the folks who see it all first. If there is a traffic accident, with or without fatalities, these are the first persons on scene. Drownings, bombings, mass casualty events, these are your first responders. Other than the emergency communications (911) dispatchers, who also suffers the same levels of response stress to these events emotionally, these are the first threads in an emergency response spinning in seamless motion to get you or a loved one the care that is needed.
But on occasion, and far too often in larger cities, the EMS system is stressed/taxed with a call volume that supersedes the manpower needed particularly during summer (Trauma) season. Budget cuts and lower staffing have many departments suffering, using manpower available to physical, mental and emotional exhaustion. Firefighters and paramedics survive some shifts on nearly no food, roll from one critical scene to another with virtually no downtime between, and by the time many get home they are not in any condition (physically, mentally or emotionally) to be attentive to family so breakdowns begin to happen here too. It can feel like being suspended in a perpetual motion of stress responses and little bits at a time it begins to wear and tear you down – physically, mentally and emotionally. This negative inlay of stress can encrust itself around you like a stress desensitizing shell causing you to become depressed and beginning a negative downward spiral. Compassion fatigue and in some cases PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) form as a result. See how firefighters in Chicago vocalized and see if you’d agree.
Fire/EMS/Dispatch personnel are trained to be a source of comfort, compassion and caring. Deep within the souls of even seasoned Fire/EMS/Dispatch stuffed down just beside the heart is the reality of that momentary shock, horror and wealth spring of emotions felt at a scene or on the other end of the line during a response. These emotions run deep beneath that steel facade giving truth to what seems to be a super-human, showing the true realism of a human being who is often more torn up about a tragic and sudden loss than YOU are, only training demands emotional suppression on scene. It is what you choose to do off-scene and off-duty that can make all the difference in the world and get stress out of the mind and body positively.
When I trained as a stress management coach, one absolute truth stood out about grieving the loss of a loved one due to suicide, there is no grief timeline. In today’s world where organizations typically give one to five days to a surviving spouse or family member for bereavement, few consider the emotional/mental reality that if you’ve spent a lifetime with that person, one to five days isn’t a true timeline of how grief is going to go! This is also very true when a member of service commits suicide. If you’ve spent any time on-duty with this person, even if it is just shift hand-off and good-bye, it is going to impact you on some level – grieve that loss! You are not a wimp if you grieve, but you are if you suppress what you feel.
Find and commit to a support group. There are support groups for firefighter wives, women in fire service, support for firefighter families and spouses, and groups to support adolescent and young adult survivors whose firefighter parent has died in the line of duty. You may feel alone but you ARE NOT!
If you are a member of service and you are struggling with your feelings, there are many organizations dedicated to helping you become whole again. Whatever you do, DO SOMETHING! Ignoring feelings of depression and sadness will not relieve the situation but only suffice to make it worse. Finding a positive expression physically (Boxing, Tai Chi, Yoga, dancing – yes Zumba can change your mood!), seeking help from your local firefighter support groups or professional organizations, granted, those in service try to leave the scenes at the locker before heading home, but sometimes the sights we see and respond too, particularly when we respond to one of our own, lingers on the mind and heart – grieve, feel, talk, express = healing. Even if you meet with fellow teammates for coffee outside the “house” or take a stroll with your spouse to get the feelings out, by all means healthily let it OUT!
If we come together, we can curb the upswing of suicide and help those grieving to heal. Let’s all join together to keep our universal global family in Fire/EMS/Dispatch whole. Until next time – good health to you!