PHILADELPHIA, PA The local firefighter’s union president is concerned about an alarming trend in his ranks.
Three of his members have committed suicide since December. International Association of Firefighters Local 22 president Joe Schulle said the latest are only the most recent.
“There have been seven suicides over the last four years,” he said. “It’s a serious problem and obviously one where there are a lot of issues that come together where an individual feels there is no other option.”
Executive Fire Chief Clifford Gilliam said the department is taking the issue very seriously. He noted the causes of the tragic incidents could be very broad and therefore difficult to define.
“The Fire Department has an Employee Assistance Program, which has been in existence for decades that assists members and their families with problems,” Gilliam said. “Local 22 also has an Employee Assistance Program of which members may utilize. We recently partnered with Local 22 and The First Responders Addiction Treatment Program to train all of our members in substance and suicide prevention to date. Because we are not experts in the causes of self-inflicted deaths, we cannot answer that question.”
But Schulle said he thinks part of the problem is the department’s system of rotation. Firefighters typically may work a week’s worth of hours in three days. They spend long hours at the fire station and typically have bedding and fully-stocked kitchens.
Firefighters, like police officers, build bonds of close trust and camaraderie and rely on each other. They talk to each other about things they can’t discuss with husbands or wives.
“When you start to look at these cases; historically what we see is there’s a tight bond between our people. Obviously if I see two children burned to death by fire that’s not something I can go home and talk to my wife and family about,” Schulle said. “We tend to rely on each other and the rotation system tears apart our families in the department. To its credit, the department is asking people to watch for certain signs that someone might be having issues. But that takes familiarity. I think the rotation system tears that familiarity apart.”
Jeff Dill, founder of the Arizona-based Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance said suicides among firefighters is a national problem.
The FBHA is one of the only organizations in the country that collects data on firefighter suicides. But it still only has statistics from about 25 percent of an estimated 32,000 fire department and EMS departments and companies across the nation.
Dill, a retired career firefighter and now a licensed therapist, said the first documented suicide of a firefighter he could find was in 1880. In 2014, 104 first-responder suicides were reported to the group.
“I think one of the problems inherent in this is what I call cultural brain washing,” Dill said. “At the academy recruits learn the science of firefighting, how to scale a ladder, how to extinguish fires but they’re not preparing our people on how to deal with the emotional pressures. We’re led to see ourselves as strong and brave. There’s a pride that comes with serving as a firefighter and rightly so.
“But you can’t leave those stresses and pressures at the firehouse. So there is the need for counseling, we all know that. But for someone who doesn’t want to appear weak, it can be difficult to take that first step and ask for help. Firefighters are told to look for changes in the behavior of a colleague; that person might say, I haven’t changed. Let me tell you something, if you’ve served as a firefighter, you’ve changed.”