Each firefighter line of duty death or serious injury sends a cold chill up the collective back of the fire service. They are startling reminders of how dangerous the job is, how brave firefighters can be and how much more we must focus on safety.
But a firefighter suicide is a different animal; it is more of a gut punch. They knock us for such a loop because they are so difficult to understand.
Jeff Dill's mission is to prevent firefighter suicide. To do that, he needs empirical data. It is a grim and uncomfortable task, but since 2011, Dill has been collecting statistical data on firefighter suicides.
About Jeff Dill
Jeff Dill is a 23-year fire-service veteran who, in 2009, formed a counseling service for firefighters. In 2011, he founded the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance, which, among other things, is working to prevent firefighter suicides. Part of that work involves gathering statistical data on firefighter suicides. In May, he will become assistant chief of the Palatine (Ill.) Rural Fire Protection District.
And while there appears to be no statistical data on firefighter suicide, a recent report estimates that an average of 18 military veterans commit suicide each day. Yes, you read that right: each day.
I sat down with Dill for a 1 on One conversation about his efforts and what he hopes will come of them.
How are you collecting your data?
If you search, you will not find any data or records on the amount of firefighters who have taken their lives.
In 2011 I formed a nonprofit based on directing awareness and prevention of suicide for the fire service. With that, I have been collecting data.
It is a combination of almost everything. It is going through the Internet. It is through people who know me across the United States; I've done workshops, written several articles, done podcasts.
I have a confidential suicide report on my website that people can fill out and send in, and I don't know who sends it in to me. I try to confirm 100 percent of them, but some extend 10 or 15 years.
When I read the letters that they send me, it is amazing the amount of hurt spouses or children are still suffering from. As I collected more, I started breaking down the data.
The data that I collect is the state, the age, the method that they've taken their lives, any underlying issues they have, and if the were active or retired.
If you go to my website, www.ffbha.org, I have a counter box and as of today's date it has 212 reports. But, I'm still new and suicide still has that stigma, so I know that the (actual) numbers are a lot greater than 212.
Are you working with any other groups?
There's a company out of Washington called Safe Call Now. It is run by an ex-police officer whose drive and passion is the same thing for police. We're about to start working together and crisscross the United States and cover both.
The National Volunteer Fire Council has asked us to write a national report on firefighter suicides. That report should be done in September or October.
Also, I'll be speaking at the Fire Rescue International in Denver. I'll have a chief speaking who had a suicide in his department, in fact, within the fire station.
What do you hope will come of the data?
Hopefully we can reduce the numbers through education and awareness. One of my goals is to begin in the academies. We teach each other how to climb ladders and do search and rescue, and fight the fire and understand fire behavior and how it can kill you.
We need to now understand how depression, post-traumatic stress, our job, the environment around us with what's going on financially with bankruptcies and people losing their jobs and houses — how all of these things come into play.
I'm hoping this data will show that we really need to start training firefighters to ask for help when they need it, and training officers how to communicate with their firefighters.
Not one of us are immune to someone knocking on your door one day and spilling out their problems. You need to understand what depression is and what they might be going through. You need to ask them the tough questions.
We're tying to get those numbers so we can say we need to do our education; we need to train on behavioral health and suicide prevention.
How much more do you need to make that case?
I think I'm making that case right now.
What have the numbers shown you about retirees?
I see a lot of retired firefighters who are taking their lives. In the fire service tradition, you put your 25 years in, they give you a gold ax and out the door you go.
These people might be suffering. It is our obligation as fire departments to say, "you're a year out, what are your plans?" Maybe there should be a committee within each department, a retirement planning committee.
You look at an officer who did incident command for many years; you become that person that people lean to to make those quick decisions.
Nothing against Wal-Mart, but if he retires and becomes a greeter at Wal-Mart, that might be a shock to his system. It is like, "I've lost my identity; I've lost my purpose in life."
I know as a licensed counselor that those are two of the main things that can lead to depression, which can lead to suicide.
What has been your biggest surprise so far?
That we still have that stigma of not reporting firefighter suicides. Even in 2012, as behavioral health is starting to come to the forefront, people still think that this is something that they can't let others know.
That's a shame. These are firefighters who maybe a week before had been working fires, performing rescue jobs — and now we can't honor them because they were struggling; they felt pain; they didn't know where to turn to help ease their pain?
If we call ourselves a brotherhood and sisterhood, if we truly are covering each other's backs, it has to go 24/7. I find it very difficult to comprehend that we don't take that extra step.
It is because we weren't trained in that. If you don't know what to do, you typically don't do anything.
What has been the biggest obstacle to gathering this information?
You need to have buy-in from the fire chiefs or high-ranking officers. Although there have been some great chiefs who support me, I've been told that there still has to be buy-in.
We need to promote behavioral health and suicide awareness and prevention.
I don't want the names of the victims; that would be crossing the line. I don't want that. I just want the numbers so we can show from small little stations to the major cities, we are all experiencing these problems.
The World Health Organization states that for each suicide it affects six people really hard. Can you imagine what the effects are on a fire department when a firefighter takes his or her life?
It has to be two, three, four times as difficult. That's why we need buy-in from rural to volunteer to career — all the chiefs.
What can firefighters do to help you reach your goal?
Send in these confidential reports. It might be difficult. I like to confirm. I'm not looking to pry, but I do want to verify numbers.
Some of the chiefs will say, "I can give you the family." Survivors want the story to get out.