Lessons from a fire chief's suicide

The city council owes it to the memory of their faithful public servant to make a meaningful change to help those still on the job

On Jan. 7, Fire Chief Rigo Landeros drove his fire department vehicle to a rural area, parked, put a gun to his head and killed himself. The 51-year-old was a firefighter since 1998 and chief since 2009; he also served as assistant city manager and public works director.

Fillmore, Calif. City Manager David Rowlands had this to say about his chief shortly after he died.

"Chief Landeros was widely known and respected throughout Fillmore and the county of Ventura as an energetic and forward-thinking public official who always was upbeat with a love of family, community and public service. He was instrumental in helping Fillmore work its way though the recent recessionary period and return the city's financial picture to full solvency."

This story raises several concerns. First and foremost is that a valued family member, friend and public servant was lost.

It also serves as a reminder that firefighter suicide and mental health issues are not only a rank-and-file problem. As Linda Willing more eloquently explains than I can, chief officers are just as susceptible to mental health problem and less likely to have the necessary support network.

In fact, you can make a fairly compelling argument that chief officers are more susceptible to these problems. They have a full storehouse of witnessed traumatic experiences acquired as they climbed the ranks compounded by the stresses and isolation that comes with leadership.

Good of the order
Another concern is what's going on in that municipality's government. The council unanimously passed a rule regulating their own code of conduct. It outlines how they can and cannot behave toward employees and that they need to work through the city manager — as a buffer.

At a very primal level, mature adults shouldn't need codes of conduct. Treating people with a level of dignity and respect — no matter the disagreement — should be something we all learned going through life. Not everyone behaves accordingly and it's hard to imagine a code of conduct changing that.

So the council's move may be largely symbolic. It is also reactionary as Chief Landeros' death sparked charges of bullying and bad behavior committed by at least one councilmember.

You can read the full story, but in short a councilman grilled the chief at a meeting over how he raised and spent a nonprofit fire association's money before the chief killed himself. The city's lawyer found no wrongdoing and told the chief as much.

Some say the chief was upset by the line of questioning and that there was a history of problems between the two; the councilman says the two were friends.

All that aside, it would be better if the council used this tragedy to do more than pass what may be a token code of conduct. This is a prime opportunity to establish or improve mental health programs for their employees, with special focus on fire, EMS and police — those most likely to suffer job-related mental illness.

The likelihood that Chief Landeros took his own life because of one run in with a councilman is slim. More likely is that it was a breaking point after years of stress and suffering.

The city owes it to the memory of their faithful public servant to make a meaningful change to help those still on the job. 

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