Pictured is a chart created by Captain Jeff Dill, detailing the yearly numbers of firefighter/EMT deaths by suicide.
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Finding a way to save those who save others

Elizabeth Medora~ 11/19/2014

NORTH VALLEY – A stressful job will take its toll on anyone. For firefighters, a day on the job could mean being called to the scene of a child drowning, a horrific car accident, a deadly fire. That kind of trauma, year in and year out, takes a tremendous toll on firefighters and EMTs.

Chicago firefighter Captain Jeff Dill, founder of the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance, is trying to raise awareness of the mental health issues firefighters and EMTs face. The Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance is the only organization in the country that tracks and validates firefighter and EMT suicides.

So far this year, 67 firefighters and EMTs have taken their own lives – and those are only the figures of the fire departments that are aware of and reporting to the Health Alliance. Suicide always leaves those left behind wondering why, what went wrong, what could have been done to change this tragic outcome. When someone who has dedicated their life to saving others commits suicide, it brings to the forefront what we as a community can do to better support our firefighters and EMTs who do so much for us.

Captain Dill offers ‘Saving Those Who Save Others’ workshops at fire stations throughout the U.S. and Canada to discuss overall behavioral health. In 2009, Dill, a licensed counselor, founded Counseling Services for Fire Fighters to help connect these first responders with counselors trained to help understand their needs and their work background.

“When we look for help, we need to have a counselor who understands our culture,” Dill said. “They have to understand who we are and what we do.”

Dill discussed the “cultural brainwashing” that goes on, noting the “tough and strong” stereotype of firefighters. The need to maintain this stoic image and reluctance to ask for help can lead to depression, addiction, stress disorders, and sometimes suicide.

Dill is bringing the ‘Saving Those Who Save Others’ presentation to New River on Dec. 3, at the Daisy Mountain Fire Station #141. The workshop is geared towards dealing with post-traumatic stress, depression, cultural expectations, and the changes that occur when first responders retire.

All firefighters, from Daisy Mountain and any other fire department, are welcome to attend the workshop. Family members of firefighters and EMTs are also welcome – the workshop will help raise awareness of warning signs of depression.

“Warning signs can be so subtle,” Dill said. “That’s the number one issue fire chiefs tell me (after a crew member commits suicide). They didn’t recognize that those were signs and symptoms.”

Dill noted that when a firefighter is lost to an accident, it’s “tragic, but we understand it.” Suicide always leaves the lingering questions of “what did we miss, what could we have done?”

Firefighter suicide isn’t a problem that just affects one area or department. It has been a tragic issue for the greater Phoenix region.

Daisy Mountain Fire Department Deputy Chief Dennis Tyrrell reported that there have been multiple firefighter suicides in the Phoenix area in the past few years.

Tyrrell, who holds a master’s degree in professional counseling, noted that it is vital to raise awareness of this issue.

“We’ve recognized the problem,” Tyrrell said. He added that Dill’s organization is the first to track firefighter suicides.

Both Dill and Tyrrell agree that firefighter retirees are at high risk for mental health issues.

Dill noted that his foundation has been tracking retired firefighters as well as active-duty.

“What we’re learning is that once they retire, is they have an emotional disconnection, and they’re lost,” Dill said. He added that he is working on a new workshop that focuses specifically on retirement.

Tyrrell agreed with this assessment, noting how great of a role firefighting holds in the identity of firefighters and how no longer being part of the crew can affect retirees.

“This job is very adrenaline-driven,” Tyrrell said. Tyrrell noted how hard it can be retirees who are no longer “doing what they’re trained to do.” Retirees lose being part of a life-saving crew, changing the focus of their lives.

The Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance is national; efforts are underway to establish an Arizona chapter.

Tyrrell emphasized the importance of making mental health counseling a priority, discussing the way the job leaves an imprint on firefighters.

Using the example of being called out to a child drowning, Tyrrell stressed that firefighters can’t “build an immunity” to that kind of trauma.

Tyrrell noted that Daisy Mountain has specific resources for firefighters and EMTs who need help.

“Daisy Mountain offers employee assistance program, available to all our employees and their families,” Tyrrell said. He noted that depression and stress often manifests at home, leaving family members in need of help, too. “It truly does affect an entire family.” Tyrrell is assembling a list of mental health providers, therapists, and psychiatrists for referrals for anyone who calls asking for help.

Captain Dill also offers referrals to anyone who calls him looking for help. He welcomes firefighters and EMTs to reach out to him.

Dill hopes to raise “awareness for our brothers and sisters” through his foundation’s work.

Saving the people who put their lives on the line to save others has to be of the utmost priority for our community.

To sign up for the ‘Saving Those Who Save Others’ workshop, see www.ffbha.org.

For more information on the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance, see www.ffbha.org or call (847) 209-8208.