Was 2016 a turning-point year for the fire service?

Anecdotal evidence suggests we may have finally hit bottom and begun our ascent in one critical life-safety area

As many of you know, each December we here at FireRescue1 and Fire Chief pull together a collection of interesting videos, news stories, things that made us laugh and meaningful firefighter perspectives from the closing year.

For me, the journey of 2016 began in the late summer of 2015, when we laid out our editorial coverage plans for the coming year. I looked across the fire service landscape to identify the biggest needs that our publications could have some meaningful influence over — the monolith dominating that landscape was firefighter behavioral health.

There’s always more that can be done, but I’m proud of our effort to throw some editorial light on that dark structure. How much meaningful impact, if any, those efforts had on improving the state of firefighter mental health is anyone’s guess.

And even had we not intended to focus on firefighter mental health, two events in 2016 would have made not covering it impossible.

The first was Nicole Mittendorff’s suicide. The more we learned about her story, the more disturbing, ugly and embarrassing it became.

It was a rock lifted that showed all the creepy-crawlies we pretended weren’t there. She showed us that there really is a boogyman hiding under our collective bed.

Her suicide made us all look in the mirror and ask if the firefighter brotherhood we so cling to is real. She made us ask how it is we would risk our lives to save a fellow firefighter trapped in a burning building, but wouldn’t risk our social standing to save a firefighter from bullying, harassment and the resultant mental distress.

The second story is that of Chief David Dangerfield who made a plea over Facebook to not ignore your loved ones’ PTSD before going to a remote area and taking his own life. By all appearances, he was a successful firefighter, a loving father and a happy person.

Like Firefighter Scott Geislehart, a rural firefighter whose PTSD drove him to a crack addiction and two suicide attempts, Chief Dangerfield made it painfully clear that PTSD is not reserved for the emotionally weak or high call-volume urban firefighter. It is available to all of us.

These tragedies do give us some reason for optimism. The reaction to Mittendorff’s suicide was loud and clear: Those creepy-crawly things were not what the fire service was made of and what they represented would not be tolerated. They answered the question whether brotherhood exists — it does.

The reaction to Dangerfield’s suicide, our third most-read story of 2016, was an outpour of support and grief typically reserved for firefighter line-of-duty deaths.

That outpour went a long way to dispel the stigma of addressing suicide in a human and meaningful way. His death was something we mourned, not swept under the rug.

Both made it not simply OK to talk about internal and external threats to our mental well-being, but made it necessary to talk about these things. They forced the uncomfortable conversation on us, and we responded.

I’m optimistic because I believe, at least hope, that 2016 was the low mark for firefighter mental health and that we’ve begun our slow, steady climb up.

I’m cautious because hitting bottom is the start of a new process or phase, not an end unto itself. We cannot afford to lose focus on protecting ourselves and our fellow firefighters from this very real threat any more than we can afford to lose focus on fireground safety.

I promise to keep our focus on this important topic as we plow into 2017 and invite you to reach out to me with ideas for how we can better protect our brothers and sisters. 

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