PHOENIX - UNITED STATES FIRE ADMINISTRATION REACTS TO ABC15 STORY
National fire officials are taking action to address suicide among the ranks after a November story by the ABC15 Investigators revealed four firefighter suicides at the Phoenix Fire Department in a span of seven months.
“I was taken back,” said Acting Fire Administrator , Chief Glenn Gaines, in response to the ABC15 Investigators’ story, which aired in November.
“The Phoenix Fire Department is probably one of the most sophisticated fire departments in the world,” he said. “I think for that very reason, I was taken back," explaining how the Phoenix Fire Department had employee assistance programs in place to address firefighter stress management before the deaths.
“I read the story,” Gaines said, explaining that he has reached out to some national fire service organizations regarding the issue and hopes to collaborate with the International Association of Fire Chiefs, the International Association of Fire Fighters , and the National Volunteer Fire Council in developing a plan to address the situation.
He said approximately 70 percent of the American fire service is made up of volunteer firefighters.
ACTING FIRE ADMINISTRATOR PLANS STUDY
Gaines said he is now working on strategies for developing and conducting a study or a survey that will evaluate how fire crews are handling and are affected by the issue of suicide and mental health within their department.
“We have studied other issues related to firefighters, but not suicide,” Gaines said.
“We’re taking baby steps now,” he said. “We have a lot of work to do before we take the next step."
The United States Fire Administration currently tracks on-duty firefighter fatalities and injuries. According to Gaines, approximately 28,000 fire departments nationwide report incidents to the National Fire Incident Reporting system to help with the injury and death tracking system. However, the USFA does not currently track firefighter suicides.
“I think this whole issue that has occurred as a result of the Phoenix experience calls us to be more aware and to take the steps with our fire service partners and EMS leadership in this country to take a hard look at this.”
Gaines discussed a variety of ideas for addressing the issue, including the possibility of creating a new training video to help teach fire leaders about the causative factors affecting a first responder’s mental and behavioral health. He also talked about conducting an interview with Chief Bob Khan, the Phoenix Fire Department chief, to determine how he is addressing the situation in Phoenix.
“Probably the most important thing we can do…is to take this first step to define the problem. How severe is it? Who is most at risk?” Gaines said.
He said the study would help assess how to best use mental health officials and experts to establish best practices for handling the situation.
“This is not something that we can take on that has a beginning, middle, and an end,” he said.
He said the initiative would have a long term life span – “that we make it part of our training programs there at the National Fire Academy; that we have hand-off programs to the states and down to the departments such as Phoenix, so they can make use of those.”
Gaines said he would also consider using the USFA’s website and listserv to distribute information to other members of the fire service around the country.
OTHER PRIVATE ORGANIZATIONS GETTING INVOLVED
Jeff Dill, a Battalion Chief at the Palatine Rural Fire Protection District in the Chicago area, is trying to offer support to firefighters as well as do his own tracking of suicides through his website, Counseling Services for Fire Fighters (csff.info). Dill also has a master’s degree in counseling, which he obtained after speaking with several first responders who struggled with mental health issues following Hurricane Katrina.
“Those counselors (helping the first responders) didn’t understand our culture,” Dill said, explaining that some firefighters stopped visiting their counselors because of the communication barrier.
Dill encourages fire chiefs to visit his website and report suicide deaths. He said chiefs can fill out an anonymous online form to help him track the age, location, and department involved in the suicide.
“It’s very difficult for even firefighters to talk about suicide and for anyone to keep records,” he explained. “There aren’t any.”
Dill holds workshops and uses videos to help teach other first responders how anger, frustration, depression and other mental health issues can affect them. He said a peer can help a fellow peer by listening and talking about the issues, and making themselves aware of potential warning signs.
“I’m not saying every firefighter has behavioral health issues, but for those that do, we need to address those issues and make sure that they’re happy and have a great career,” he said.
“We’re never going to stop every suicide,” he explained. “But for the people we can (help),