CHICAGO, IL – The Chicago Fire Department found itself ahead of the curve in a most alarming way. The department suffered seven active- and retired-firefighter suicides in an 18-month period.
Faced with such a crisis, the Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2 Employee Assistance Program wanted to get an in-depth picture of what members are dealing with on the job and at home, and how those things affect them and might increase their potential risk for suicide.
The EAP staff’s efforts also included reading material pertaining to suicide to find the answer that tells us what we, as a society can, and should do to prevent suicides. And what we’ve found is that there isn’t one out there.
Literature addresses some theories, a host of symptoms, red-flag behaviors, and demographics of those who have committed suicide. But despite increased attention to the topic, data shows that the number of suicides in the U.S. has risen steadily since the earliest statistics were recorded.
Suicide is a topic that often is considered socially unacceptable to talk about. Therefore, no research exists on suicides specific to fire-department personnel. So by offering statistics specific to the men and women of the CFD, hopefully other departments will follow and compile statistics within their departments, so the fire service nationwide can begin to better understand any possible links between the profession and suicide. The more data fire departments offer, the more professionals have to work with.
Today, many states and organizations are working together to address suicide. Recently, the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation brought together three leaders in the area of suicide research: Matthew K. Nock, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Harvard University who studies the incidence and epidemiology of suicide; Thomas Joiner, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Florida State University who has researched and studied the etiology of suicide; and Alan (Lanny) Berman, Ph.D., the executive director of the American Association of Suicidology (AAS).
Joiner identified three behavioral characteristics that may lead a person to die by suicide. These include the person feeling isolated and lacking a feeling of purpose and having a high tolerance for pain. Joiner also is open about the fact that his own father died by suicide. Berman, through collaboration with professionals and volunteers across the world, dedicates his energies to the prevention of suicide.
“Not many doctors continue to research this area because of the lack of data available,” Nock said in his presentation.
Local 2 EAP Suicide Data
The Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2 EAP gathered from its records demographic data on deceased members from 1990 through 2010, in addition to membership information from the Fireman’s Annuity & Benefit Fund of Chicago Annual Reports. Data was compared to suicide data of the general population for the same time period with the following question in mind: Are suicide rates specific to the fire department personnel higher than those of the general population? If so, does working on the fire department and a person’s susceptibility to circumstances contribute to thoughts and/or acts of suicide?”
Researchers looked 1,787 deaths of active and retired members who worked on the CFD and were members of the Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2. They identified 41suicides, all committed by males. While the ages ranged from 27 to 86, the average age of CFD members who died by suicide was 55. The mode, or most frequently occurring age of suicide, in these statistics are ages 30 and 57,with three recorded suicides at each age. Averaging the 41 suicides over this period gives an annual suicide incidence of two.
Nationally, the recorded numbers of suicides have varied from approximately 29,000 in 1990 to more than 36,000 in 2009, the most recent year of published national statistics on suicide.
U.S. incidence rates for this period ranged between 10and 12suicides per 100,000people each year. In order to compare these findings with the suicide numbers in the CFD for the same time period, CFFU L2statistics were converted to a figure per 100,000people. To do this, researchers used Michael G. Aamodt’s formula published in 2006to compare police suicides to the general population. For each year, fire-department took the total number of suicides and divided it by the total number of members on the CFD. The figure was then multiplied by 100,000 to create a rate per 100,000.
Despite searches for related data nationally, no data specific to the fire service was uncovered. Therefore, we were unable to compare our data to other fire departments. However, researchers did find one study done in 2006 by Aamodt and Nicole A. Stainaker from Radford University on police officers entitled, “Police Officer Suicide: Frequency and Officer Profiles.” Their results negated a previous study that suggested suicide rates for police officers are higher than the general populations.
What does the data? Keep in mind, researchers did not separate data based on demographics such as age, sex or race. The calculated average suicide rate for the members of the CFFU L2 over a 20-year period — 24.98 per 100,000— is more than twice as high as the national average of 10.9 for the time period we examined. However, using the higher national rate Aamodt suggested specific to race (Caucasian) because of a primarily white department, which for 2008 was 21.2, the average of 24.98 is closer to the national rate, yet still higher.
The CFD experienced 12years with significantly higher rates than the general populations. Of these 12years, four of them 1992, 1997, 2008and 2010appear notably higher. Conversely, in nine of the studied years the CFD experienced none or one suicide; whereas the national rate remained relatively constant.
Data in Use
The Union Local 2 EAP set out to gather data on suicides within the Chicago Fire Department after the department experienced seven suicides in 18 months. The department has experienced 41 suicides in a 20-year period. But until other fire departments gather data specific to suicide, and such data is compiled at the national level, researchers can only speculate at how the rate of suicides in the fire service compares to that of the general population.
While the core of the EAP remains the same, the department has made several changes based on the survey results. First, to increase the exposure of our EAP and put a face to the names, EAP members visited every firehouse on all three shifts — approximately 300 visits. It took them over a year to accomplish this. The police EAP did a similar thing by attending roll calls throughout their department. Second, the staff and chief officers were educated about the issue, including the fact that 90% of suicidal patients have a diagnosable mental-health or substance-abuse disorder. Now suicide is addressed during alcohol and drug assessments. Third, the EAP created the Family Focus Day with officials from the CFD. More than 700 members and their families attended the first three years of the program. They could attend workshops or simply talk with a representative from an EAP resource. These along with constant exposure through the union’s website and educational articles in the union’s quarterly publication keeps the EAP’s presence fresh.
Suicide is one outcome of serious, internal struggles for an individual that may manifest for some time before he or she reaches the decision to die by suicide. Fire-service members are exposed to many tragic, horrific scenarios that require immediate responses and actions. The impact on how such exposure to these situations affects individuals and/or their relations with their families is not necessarily recognized or understood. Does the job experience affect them enough to raise susceptibility to mental challenges that may lead to suicidal thoughts aside from other conditions?
To answer this or any other questions about suicide in the fire service, departments must break the silence. The data offered here is basic, but it’s enough to start forming hypotheses about suicide and the fire service.
In the first edition of “Fire in the United States,” former California State Fire Marshall Philip C. Favro wrote:
“Data can save lives. … Unfortunately, the opposite is also true — data can kill. Critical decisions affecting fire and life safety are being made every day. These decisions are being based on what are believed to be ‘the facts’ …. and those ‘facts’ are the results of conclusions drawn from your data you are — or are not — reporting accurately. Think about it.”
This was a statement encouraging all fire departments across the nation to adopt and adhere to the guidelines of NFIRS.
The more data available, the better the fire service can map more accurate intervention strategies. In turn, fire departments can better serve and protect their communities.
Daniel DeGryse CEAP, CAD, is coordinator of the Local 2 employee assistance program for the Chicago Fire Department.
From The Fire Chief