PHOENIX - For the first time in more than two decades, the National Police Suicide Foundation executive director is reaching out to firefighters to help prevent suicides.
Crews from several Valley departments accepted an opportunity to learn from veteran police suicide expert, Bob Douglas, during a special Phoenix seminar, sponsored by the 100 Club of Arizona.
The Phoenix event also included a presentation from a Valley woman whose firefighter-brother committed suicide nearly two decades ago.
A DEATH FIFTEEN YEARS AGO
As one of the youngest men ever to become captain at the Phoenix Fire Department, Mike Callahan, a husband and father of three young children, seemed to have it all.
"(He was) very fun loving," said Kathy Mayberry, Callahan's sister. "(He) had a big heart.”
Fifteen years ago, she recalled, he and his young family had just moved into a new home. At the time, Callahan’s hyper attitude and weight loss didn’t seem out of the ordinary, considering all of the hectic activities happening in his life.
She never realized the changes in his behavior and appearance were also warning signs of a devastating event to come.
“I was working out of town … when I got the call that Mike had been shot and killed,” she said.
When she arrived back in Arizona, she learned her brother had pulled the trigger on himself.
“I’m really convinced that we are put in places and surrounded by certain people to make a difference for others,” Mayberry said, addressing a group of nearly thirty firefighters during one of two special seminars at the Phoenix Fire Department.
“Although this is difficult to share my story, I hope and pray that my words and actions can make a difference.”
100 CLUB BRINGS SUICIDE AWARENESS
No one talked much about suicide when Mayberry’s brother died, but this year, it is becoming an important topic at departments around the country.
Four Phoenix firefighters killed themselves during a span of seven months in 2009 and 2010.
That’s why the 100 Club of Arizona, an organization that offers resources and financial support to families of injured or fallen first responders, invited Douglas to conduct two, four-hour suicide awareness training seminars for Valley firefighters.
Shift commanders and battalion chiefs from Phoenix attended the event as well as representatives from a total of five Valley departments.
“After I went to Bob (Douglas’) seminar…I had a cold chill going down my body,” said Mayberry, referring to a time she saw Douglas speaking months ago.
Mayberry, who is also a member of the 100 Club of Arizona Board of Directors, said Douglas helped her realize the suicide warning signs -like weight loss, sleep deprivation, and hyper behavior - that were present in her brother before he passed away.
“Don’t ignore behaviors that are unusual for a person,” she said. “Reach your hand out and ask to help.”
“Until we start to talk about it and discuss it and understand it – at least in the emergency field of firefighters and police and EMS – we will never, never see a reduction in the suicides in our country today,” said Douglas.
Douglas, a retired police officer from Baltimore, lost a good friend and colleague to suicide in the mid-1980s. Since that time, he has worked to bring suicide awareness to other police officers throughout the country, eventually developing the National Police Suicide Foundation.
The presentation in Phoenix is the first time he has trained an exclusive group of firefighters.
“The key is to be educated in the basic signs and symptoms and then to be able to process that to someone who can bring about help,” Douglas explained.
He told firefighters to look for alcoholism, sleep disorders, deteriorating personal appearances, absenteeism, low morale, loss of productivity, and exhaustion as possible indicators that a fellow firefighter may be struggling internally.
The ABC15 Investigators have been reporting on this story since November, but during a January interview, learned the Acting US Fire Administrator reached out to other national fire service organizations after reading our story.
He said he hoped to develop a nationwide survey, to better understand the issue as it affects firefighters around the country. The survey, he said, would help fire officials learn how to better handle suicide prevention within the ranks.
This month, he told us he has spoken with all three major fire service organizations, including the International Association of Fire Fighters , the National Volunteer Fire Council , and the International Association of Fire Chiefs.
“There is concern and interest in firefighter suicide,” he wrote to us in an email. “I plan on discussing the matter with (the three firefighter
organizations) in the coming weeks.”
Gaines said the National Volunteer Fire Council has agreed to undertake the survey but does not currently have the funding to do so.
The United States Fire Administration is considering developing a digital, best practices management guide for crews throughout the country. Gaines said it would be made available in a national online resource center.
“We may be able to assist in funding once a final decision is made in regard to our current year budget,” Gaines said.