PHOENIX - After four firefighters took their own lives in a span of seven months, the Phoenix Fire Department is making significant changes to enhance the mental, physical, emotional, and behavioral health of personnel.
THE FIRST SUICIDE
Despite the holiday wreath, the Christmas tree, and the festive garland hanging from the walls, a somber mood filled the Mountain Preserve Reception Center in Phoenix in December of last year.
Dozens of Phoenix fire personnel had gathered at the hall, near Dunlap Ave. and 12th Street, for a memorial service. They were paying respects and saying goodbye to Shaun Johnson, a Phoenix firefighter who killed himself December 5, 2009.
“I think about him all the time,” said Adam Caiazzo, Johnson’s friend and fellow firefighter, “especially at the holidays.”
Johnson was the first of four suicides to strike the Phoenix Fire Department in the seven months that followed.
Conrad Garcia, a retired firefighter, Chris Bishop, and Corey Nelson also took their own lives between December 2009 and July 2010.
“I think we’ve had the lowest lows and the highest highs over the last year or so,” said Chief Bob Khan, who leads the Phoenix Fire Department.
“I think we’ve pulled ourselves up, and we’re taking it on,” Khan said.
Nearly an entire year after Johnson’s death, the Phoenix Fire Department is working to enhance the wellness of the entire staff.
This week, firefighters gathered again in the same hall where Johnson's memorial was held, for an annual meeting. During the discussion, a newly formed Mental Health Task Force presented recommended changes intended to enhance the wellness of the entire staff.
“I think the reaction (to the deaths) was different for everybody,” said John Prato, a firefighter and fire union trustee, who co-chairs the task force.
“People were sad; they were shocked; they didn’t know how to react, but I think they were all motivated at some point or to some degree to improve the system or enhance the system and improve ourselves and our willingness to participate in that system.”
The department currently has programs to assist members in various ways. However, the task force, which was formed after Nelson killed himself in July, has been meeting since August, developing 16 recommendations for improvements in the way a member’s wellness is handled during times of crisis and throughout a member’s life. The recommendations are now part of a three-year strategic plan within the department.
“We wanted to create a layer of not just preventing people from suicide - not just making sure that people are okay - but adding an extra layer of wellness to that,” said Prato.
The list of recommendations includes plans to create a standing wellness committee, offer ongoing wellness education, improve support and resources for retirees and firefighter families and develop a peer support team.
“We want to make a difference in our members’ lives,” Prato said. “(We want to) make sure they’re able to go home happy – they’re able to enjoy their family life, and when they retire, make sure they’re able to enjoy their retirement.”
“We’ve had a huge group involved in the process,” said Deputy Chief Brian Parks, who co-chairs the task force.
“The group was so big, and there was so much energy, we broke it down into working groups,” said Parks, explaining how many firefighters and fire personnel wanted to be involved in the process of creating recommendations for change.
“We’re looking at how do we help people deal with the stresses in everyday life?” he said. “How do we take care of problems when they’re still small?”
THE CULTURE CHANGE
“Moving forward, change starts with buy-in,” the executive summary reads. “If a change in our culture requires a change in ourselves in order to increase wellness, then the Mental Health Task Force is confident that our Family will stand together to make that change.”
Khan echoed the sentiment, explaining that many firefighters can be “stoic” when it comes to asking for help when they may need it.
“I have to create sort of a cultural shift,” he said, “but then, they have to embrace it.”
In October, Khan told ABC15 he believed firefighters within his department would feel more comfortable seeking help if he were to say it was okay to do so.
“If I say that and I believe that – it’s good to be strong and it’s good to be courageous, but it’s also good to ask for help,” he said during the October interview. “I do believe it.”
Khan told the ABC15 Investigators, he has received numerous emails, text messages, and phone calls from members inside the department, retirees, and other fire departments across the country, since that initial interview aired in November.
“That people were willing to come forward to help each other is a pretty remarkable feat,” he said.
He said he recommends that other departments facing similar issues take similar action.
“You step up, and you ask for help,” he said.
“I asked John (Prato) and Brian (Parks) for help, and I asked