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How firefighters are fighting to curb trauma and suicide rates

Posted at 9:22 PM, Nov 15, 2018
and last updated 2018-11-16 00:24:25-05

While it's a scary trend, it's one that's commonly swept under the rug. 
First responders are now more likely to die by suicide, than in the line of duty. Each year, the number of men and women in the fire service taking their own lives continues to rise, according to the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance. 

84 percent of firefighters have experienced a traumatic event while on the job.

In 2017, 103 firefighters committed suicide nationally, where only 93 were killed in the line of duty. 

"The world can be a dark place at times," said Alexander Yates. He's been with the Glendale Fire Department for three years. "We see dark things, and I know a lot of people don't want the nightmares that come along with that."

Firefighters say they're more prone to PTSD as a result of the trauma they see when responding to emergencies. Some say they've watched children take their last breath after drowning, or have seen drivers die moments after a crash. Some calls, even more violent, like fires and even shootings. They call these 'high-stress incidents.'

"I think it's a chronic chain of events that happen through someone's career," added Yates. "Seeing death, seeing trauma...I think a lot of people lose that sense of control, they feel like everything in their life is just spinning, and the only way they can control anything is making that decision to end their life."

The challenge today, to combat two big issues. The first, the thought of suicide. 

Patrick Hourihan is one of 20 peer support members at Glendale Fire, who says this issue is now a top priority at the department, calling it an 'epidemic.' He's trained to ask the tough questions and look for red flags within first responders that something may be affecting them.

They try and help each man or woman process their trauma, and give them resources to do so.

Glendale Fire has a sworn chaplain on staff who sits with firefighters who need someone to talk to. On top of that, the department also uses an online resource called FireStrong, a national option for firefighters to reach out to other first responders across the country, connect and chat about issues they're facing. The site also has interactive resources that can help advise others who would prefer to remain anonymous. 

Glendale Fire also uses a tracking system called ZOI tracking and documenting. It keeps count of the number of 'high-stress incidents' each of their men and women has responded to and flags those who have the highest or most frequent number of exposure. The system alerts leaders, who then can reach out to those individuals directly to check on their overall health. 

"These repeated exposures to tragedy and high-stress incidents often lead to substance abuse," said Hourihan. "Marital problems, difficulty being a parent, financial issues, issue on continuing to find purpose."

The second issue, the culture surrounding first responders. 

"Historically in the fire service, we are individuals who pride ourselves on being strong, and it's not always easy to reach out for help," said Hourihan. "It's difficult for us to become vulnerable, even with each other."

Hourihan says there's a fear that admitting the things many of these men and women see on the job affects them is a sign of weakness; therefore, some refuse to speak up about their emotions and overall mental health. 

"People don't really want to bring it up for fear of being looked down upon from their other crew members," said Yates.

Glendale Fire says they're working to counteract that, and are encouraging first responders to use available resources. They say some are finding it easier, as they watch more and more of them do so. 

"I don't want to see anybody else die," said Hourihan. "I don't want to see guys lose time to substance abuse, that's why we need these programs, that's why we need to recognize the signs in each other, those changes in performance at work and to know that we have the answer, the solution."