By Jeff Dill, founder of Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance
One of Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance’s (FBHA) goals is to remember our brothers and sisters who have taken their lives. They all struggled with issues in their professional or personal lives. FBHA has spoken to approximately nine-hundred fire or EMS chiefs to learn more about the tragic events behind these losses.
We have traveled nearly half a million miles, presenting workshops, meeting firefighters, EMS, counselors and chaplains. We have made many friends and have lost many that we have spoken to while on this journey. There have been very few things that have disappointed me during my career, but there is one occurrence that consistently reminds me of how far we still have to go with understanding firefighter suicide.
One afternoon, a fire chief called me. He had some questions regarding a member who had taken his life two days earlier. He had spoken to the fire chief’s association in his state about what funeral protocol his department should use.
I advised the chief to ask the family first and inform them of the funeral options that are available. Many states offer three levels of memorial services:
Level 1: A full funeral for Line of Duty Deaths offers an open invitation for all firefighters across the globe to attend in honor of their fallen brother or sister.
Level 2: The deceased are honored for their services with a funeral where the department has a walk-through and invites neighboring departments. This could be for retirees or off-duty deaths/accidents.
Level 3: Hold a department-only ceremony in order to more privately honor someone for their service.
I advised the chief that if the family agreed to it, a Level 2 funeral seemed appropriate. He informed me that the chief assigned to the funeral detail from the state felt it would be inappropriate to hold a funeral for a firefighter who had committed suicide. After hearing this, I contacted the chief of the association to hear his side of the story. True enough, his words, which still resonate in my mind today, were quite simple. He felt that, “We shouldn’t have a funeral because we don’t want to glorify suicide.”
I was at a loss for words. It was then and there that I realized how deeply suicide within the fire service and EMS industry is misunderstood. Was it his intent to say that we should never remember this firefighter because he took his own life? Should we not honor his family for the dedication he gave to his department? Should we bury our heads in the sand and pretend these brave individuals never existed?
I would like to think the comment was an oversight on his part. Perhaps, like so many others, he never had any behavioral health training and did not understand how the job could affect our lives in so many ways.
If your department has lost a firefighter or EMS member due to suicide, how do you remember them? FBHA remembers them in a special ceremony every third Friday in May. During the event, local fire departments pull their rigs out onto the apron and run their lights for one minute at 2100 hours local time while family members hold candles and stand in a moment of silence. This is our tribute to families across the U.S. and Canada, and our way of saying that we will always remember the fallen.
We invite you to join us this May 19, 2017 in pulling out your rigs and running your lights for one minute. If your department has suffered a fire or EMS suicide loss, invite the family members of the deceased. This year’s FBHA retreat is being held in Gatlinburg, TN. If you are in the area, join us. If you participate from near or far, please take videos and pictures and send them to FBHA. We will post them.
This is a special way to pay tribute to our fallen brothers and sisters as well as to their families. We believe it is a better approach to healing. The ceremony is not glorifying suicide and neither is a proper funeral. Rather, it is paying respect to members who have protected our community. We are honoring them for their dedication and passion to help others; not for the way they died.
As of March 14, 2017, 977 industry suicides have been reported to us. We estimate that these reports depict about 40% of the actual statistics. If you know of a FF or EMS suicide, please fill out the confidential report on our web page at ffbha.org. We never publish names or organizations unless family members contact us and give us permission to do so. We utilize these statistics to help educate others on suicide awareness/prevention.