‘No one was tracking firefighter suicides’: Launching the FFBHA
Jeff Dill details the early days of the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance and its ongoing mission to provide support for first responders
Hurricane Katrina was the beginning.
Jeff Dill was working as a firefighter in Illinois when the hurricane struck New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in 2005. Some firefighters from Dill’s department responded to the disaster and “when they got back, they showed me pictures – they were picking up bodies in the street,” he recalled.
From conversations with Dill’s colleagues, it was clear that many firefighters suffered trauma from the experience. Some had access to counseling resources, but that intervention had limited benefit, Dill said, because “[the counseling service] had good people, but they just weren’t trained to work with firefighters.”
Counseling Services for Firefighters
Learning about these firefighters’ experiences motivated Dill to return to school after 15 years in the fire service to obtain his master’s degree and counseling certification. Then, in 2010, he founded Counseling Services for Firefighters (CSFF).
CSFF initially had a limited scope – training counselors and chaplains, primarily in Illinois. But in early 2010, Dill started receiving emails and phone calls from all over the world asking if his organization did anything about firefighter suicide.
“I didn’t know we had a problem,” Dill admitted, but the inquiries inspired him to conduct research among emergency service organizations. “No one was tracking firefighter suicides. I couldn’t believe it.”
Dill’s research uncovered the extent of the problem – one that had been previously invisible to firefighters and fire service leaders alike.
“We’re losing people,” he said. “And that’s when my wife and I decided we need to create a nonprofit for this issue. That’s when Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance was born.”
Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance
Dill delivered the first FFBHA workshop in 2011 to the Philadelphia Fire Department.
“I walked into a group of around 100 firefighters and said we’re going to be talking about PTSD and suicide, and you would have thought I had leprosy,” he said. “We don’t talk about that kind of stuff.” That was the beginning, and Dill has never looked back.
FFBHA has been a family affair since the beginning. Dill’s wife, Karen, is the board president of the organization; their daughter Emily is the office assistant. Only three other people are listed on the website as team members, and Dill continues to design all the workshops. Despite these constraints, Dill and the team were presenting up to 145 workshops per year. That changed, of course, when COVID-19 hit. Now that the pandemic is subsiding, requests for workshops and presentations are again on the rise. The organization also has a book planned for publication later this year.
FFBHA is also working to collect validated, confidential data about firefighter suicide going all the way back to 1877, but mostly focused on reported suicides since 2000. According to USFA data, more firefighters died by suicide from 2014 to 2019 than in the line of duty.
Dill added that the data is only one aspect that sets the FFBHA apart from other advocacy groups: “What makes us different from other organizations addressing suicide is not only the data collecting, but mostly that our programs come from our brother and sister firefighters, the things I have learned, their stories, and my experience in the job,” he said.
Survivor outreach, community awareness and expansion
In addition to workshops and data collection, FFBHA supports several other types of programs. One is the annual Survivor Retreat for family members who have lost firefighters or other emergency responders to suicide. This year’s gathering is being held in May in Pigeon Ford, Tennessee.
“It’s the most powerful weekend you can imagine,” Dill said.
The event includes the national We Remember Night, which will be streamed live on Facebook.
Dill hopes to develop additional retreats for firefighters in the future.
The FFBHA also participates in a college/trade school scholarship program, which provides cash assistance to children or spouses of firefighters who have died by suicide.
Another community outreach program established by FFBHA, Together Against Bullying and Suicide (TABS) is a public workshop that addresses the seriousness of bullying and the tragedy of suicide, with a focus on teens.
This year, FFBHA also published a white paper entitled “Moral Injury in Firefighters: Wounds of the Spirit.” This research paper is available for free download.
Although FFBHA was originally created to aid firefighters, its mission has expanded to include other emergency personnel, including paramedics and dispatchers. Dill also develops programs specifically for wildland firefighters and emergency responders in military settings.
Funding – the largest hurdle
When asked about the greatest challenge to keep the program’s initiatives going, Dill did not hesitate: “It’s absolutely the funding,” he said. “We’re a small nonprofit. We don’t get funding.”
The organization runs primarily on small donations and occasional fundraisers.
“Our biggest one is probably Mission Barbecue out of Hagerstown, Maryland,” said Dill. This business does a twice-yearly product promotion that results in donations of a few thousand dollars.
Other potential donors have told Dill, “We love what you do, but it’s suicide, and that’s a negative connotation.” One told him that there wasn’t much return on investment for them in supporting the organization. “How do you even reply to that?” Dill asked.
In 2013, FFBHA obtained a FEMA grant of $25,000 to provide free workshops.
“We had a list three pages long of departments that wanted the training, but $25,000 doesn’t go that far.”
For the next five or six years, FFBHA applied without success for additional grants.
“It was almost like the same letter each time,” Dill relayed. “They’d say there’s no measurable way to prove you’re saving lives.”
A new opportunity
In 2021, Dill got a call from Las Vegas Fire and Rescue, looking for a behavioral health coordinator. It was an offer he couldn’t refuse.
In this position, Dill develops resources, conducts direct outreach with department members, manages the peer support team, and coordinates training with surrounding fire departments. It’s a full-time job, but Dill still travels weekends and during vacation periods to deliver workshops and programs for FFBHA.
Making a difference in firefighter behavioral health
Despite all the challenges, the work itself provides the greatest rewards, Dill explained.
“A few months ago, I was teaching at a fire department, and during the break, a captain came up to me,” Dill recalled. “He said, ‘You probably don’t remember me. I got injured when I fell through a floor on a fire, and I was struggling. My chief reached out and found you, and within a day, you had me in to see a counselor. And that saved my life.’ And he gave me a big hug.”
Dill has had many encounters like this one over the years: “There’s no trophy or award for behavioral health that ever replaces something like that.”