4 Phoenix firefighters commit suicide in 7 months

Each firefighter has a different story, and the Phoenix Fire Department is planning to make changes to help support firefighters

By Lori Jane Gliha

PHOENIX — They are heroes. They save lives.

The 1,600 sworn members of the Phoenix Fire Department risk their own lives to battle fire, offer medical assistance, pull accident victims from vehicles and administer CPR to drowning victims.

While they handled close to 150,000 calls for help from the public in 2009, nothing could have prepared the Phoenix Fire Department for the internal tragedy happening within their ranks. Four firemen have killed themselves in a span of seven months.

"It leaves the organization a little upside down, a little bewildered," said Bob Khan, the Phoenix Fire Chief. "A lot of people (are) feeling guilty or asking questions," he said.

Shaun Johnson was the first firefighter to take his own life.

Shaun's story
At 35 years old, Shaun Johnson was a strapping fireman from Minnesota.

"He's one of those guys that just kind of lit up a room when he came in," said Phoenix fireman Adam Caiazzo, a close friend who went through the fire academy with Johnson. "He was just a funny, fun-loving, caring guy, not afraid of much."

As Caiazzo flipped through an old photo album, he remembered the time when Johnson tricked Caiazzo's relative into thinking she had a winning lottery ticket.

"He loved to pull pranks on people. He loved to pull gags on people," he laughed.

Johnson was once a firefighter in the United States Air Force and had several hobbies including singing, playing guitar, and bareback riding.

But his life came to an end on December 5, 2009. Johnson hanged himself after being checked into a mental health facility.

"He always put a happy face on," said Caiazzo. "I think it was something that just came over him. I don't know what was the stem of the situation. I don't know how he got to where he was," he added, explaining that he knew Johnson was struggling at times, internally.

Fire department reaction
Bob Khan, Phoenix Fire Chief:

"People were asking questions, trying to figure out what happened with Shaun."

"We told them what we knew about Shaun. We told them that we need to watch out for each other at the fire station."

"(We) gave them the information that we had on hand that there are things that you need to look for. If somebody's not behaving properly, or if they're coming to work late that it that could be more than just a behavioral problem, that it could be some sort of a mental health issue that you need to address."

Conrad's story
In March 2010, another suicide struck the Phoenix Fire Department. Retired fireman Conrad Garcia, 54, shot himself along the side of the I-10 freeway near Chandler Blvd.

His mother described Garcia as an extremely caring and religious man, who spent his entire career as a fireman. When he retired, he started working for the City of Phoenix Aviation Department.

According to his obituary, "he will be remembered as a devout Christian, loving & caring husband, father, and son."

"Conrad was a pleasant person to be around," said Khan, who hadn't spoken to Garcia in more than a decade at the time he died.

Khan said he heard about Garcia's death second hand.

"He had a very vivacious personality," Khan remembered. "That he would decide to commit suicide is still…confusing."

According to Garcia's family and police reports, Garcia suffered from depression when he retired from the Phoenix Fire Department. He also struggled with back pain, and prescribed medication.

According to an Arizona DPS report, on the day he died, Garcia told his son, he had planned to go "to Phoenix Fire Station 19 to sleep, because he could not sleep at home." However, it is unclear whether he ever went before he died.

He left a note for his family telling them he loved them and explaining that his "minds(sic) messed up and (he) can't get it back."

Chris' story
About two weeks later, firefighter Chris Bishop, 42, hanged himself in his garage.

"Chris' suicide was a complete surprise to everybody," said Khan.

Bishop, according to his obituary, was a military veteran, an avid outdoorsman, and a sports fanatic. He "excelled in everything he did and had a passion for being active."

"It's like all suicides; you're a little bewildered as to why that happens. There's a stigma… associated with it. There's feelings of guilt," said Khan.

"You're asking questions about the system. Is our (Employee Assistance Program) provider doing what it needs to take care?" he said.

According to a sheriff's office report, Bishop had left a ten-page note, explaining that there was "nothing that anyone could have done to have prevented it," and that he loved them. The report also indicated Bishop had previously attended drug and alcohol treatment classes.

"I'm not sure how you manage mental illness," Khan said. "I'm not a mental health expert, but there are people that are starting to take a look at this that are, and they're concerned with that trend."

Corey's story
But it wasn't until Corey Nelson, 33, killed himself in July, that Khan and the Firefighter's union president developed a task force to address

the suicides within the Phoenix Fire Department.

"He was a great big brother to me," said sister Cam Nelson, with tears in her eyes. "He was my best friend, and I could tell him anything."

The tall firefighter was intimidating in stature but was easy to talk to, she said. He had a shaved head and was always wearing sunglasses.

"He was a great dad. He loved his boys," she said of the father of two. "His personality was awesome. There's not anybody that knows him that wouldn't have anything but good things to say about him."

"I miss him very much," said Steve Nelson, a retired Phoenix firefighter and Corey Nelson's father.

"You just couldn't believe that he was dealing with that sort of turmoil inside. He didn't let anybody know it," he added.

"I tried to explain to him, and I said, ‘I've been through a lot of the same things,'" said Steve Nelson. "I was hoping he would take my word to heart."

He said, as a firefighter, "I saw the devastation that (suicide) brought to families, but I never realized truly the hurt that's involved ‘til it happens to you."

According to a police report, Corey Nelson was involved in a custody battle before he died. He also left a note for his family, telling them he loved them.

Phoenix Fire program changes
While some of these men did reach out for help at various times, the department is exploring ways to enhance the way employees are getting help and the type of help that is being offered.

"The Phoenix Fire Department is very very good at taking care of their people, and there are all sorts of therapy and counselors that are available," said retired Phoenix firefighter Steve Nelson. "The problem is to get the firefighter to use these tools that are there for them because the whole macho thing — where you don't let things bother you — and if you keep them inside they'll definitely tear you down."

According to Phoenix Chief Khan, "If we could do things differently or we can do things differently, then we should...we need to do everything we can to try and keep the next one from happening."

He said the new task force has been meeting regularly to discuss possible changes in the types of services that are available for the crews and will make recommendations for changes in mid-November.

"In some ways, it's a line of duty death," Khan said, "that we need to keep the next one from happening." We need to probably pull out all the stops right now.

Khan pointed out the department currently has an Employee Assistance Program, a chaplain, counseling, and a Friends Helping Friends program aimed at helping current firefighters who are struggling with personal issues.

Friends Helping Friends, he said, was initially designed to help firemen and women struggling with substance abuse, and he said, the program has not really grown with the department size. He said the program did not take into account all of the massive economic changes affecting peoples' lives in recent years.

Phoenix Fire Department culture change
"The culture has to make it acceptable for a firefighter to come forward and say I'm struggling with something," said Tim Dietz, who created Behavioral Wellness Resources' a company that offers private counseling services and develops behavioral health programs for first responders and other organizations. Dietz is also a veteran fire officer and paramedic.

ABC15 asked Khan what he believes can change in Phoenix so a firefighter can feel comfortable seeking support.

"Probably the fire chief saying it's okay to ask for help," he said. "If I say that and I believe that — it's good to be strong and it's good to be courageous, but it's also good to ask for help."

Khan told the ABC15 Investigators that he has tried to say it before, but "It's not necessarily a message they want to hear." He said he believes what he is saying — that it is okay for someone to ask for help.

"I do believe it," he said. "I don't want to see one more young person die needlessly, and suicide is about as needless a way to die as I can think of."

"The culture is huge," Dietz said, acknowledging the tough nature of firefighters. A chief must also be able to express that he is willing to seek help if he should need it, Dietz explained.

Khan admitted, "it would be awkward," but, he said, he would listen to anyone who offered or suggested help if he needed it. "If I had a good friend who said, ‘you need to get some help,' I would listen. I would hope somebody would do that."

Dietz said he believes new recruits must receive training about stress and how to take care of themselves, when they join a fire department. "It's got to start from day one, when they come in," he explained. "You give them tools," he said, explaining how new fire employees must learn it's okay to talk about how they're handling the tough situations they've witnessed and experienced on the job.

Currently, firefighters must pass a physical exam in order to work in the field, but no similar mental wellness check exists within the department, Khan told ABC15.

"I think there should be," he said, explaining he is researching ways to affect mental wellness at the Phoenix Fire Department.

Tracking firefighter suicides
While working with the Scripps Howard News Service, ABC15 learned there isn't extensive current national research quantifying how suicide is affecting firefighters and other first responders.

However, there are various private organizations trying to track the issue and bring attention to the situation.

Jeff Dill, the Battalion Chief at Palatine Rural Fire Protection District in Illinois, created Counseling Fire Fighters Services, to help address the mental needs of firefighters, while tracking the problem within departments across the country.

Dill, who also holds a master's degree in counseling, told ABC15 he talks to a handful of fire chiefs in various parts of the country every week about the issues affecting the firefighters at their departments.

He mentioned suicide problems affecting departments in other parts of Illinois, including Chicago, as well as Georgia, Washington, Texas, and Oregon.

Dill is now trying to track firefighter suicides nationwide, with the help of departments across the country. He is developing a national database, to which fire chiefs can report suicides within their departments.

According to his website, the "Fire Fighters Suicide Report will be an anonymous report to CSFF from a reporting fire department."

International Association of Fire Fighters
Currently, the International Association of Fire Fighters does not keep any research on firefighter suicides, according to Timothy Burn, the IAFF press secretary.

However, Burn told ABC15, "We are keeping our eye on this issue."

100 Club helping
According to Sharon Knutson-Feliz, the Executive Director of 100 Club of Arizona' an organization dedicated to helping the families fo fallen public safety personnel, the 100 Club hosted a Suicide Awareness and Train the Trainer Seminar in September.

Knutson-Felix said 182 public safety personnel attended the event, and the 100 Club is expecting 100 individuals to attend when they repeat the session in Tucson.

"We truly do 'Stand Behind the Men and Women Who Stand Behind the Badge,'" she said. "We are...providing scholarships, safety equipment and other financial assistance for the families when tragedy strikes. This year our goal is to help bridge the gap by providing training where training budgets are cut."

"We help these families, not just those who are killed in the line of duty," she said.

Other departments experiencing suicide

In a three-year period, the Chicago Fire Department suffered twelve suicides, according to Captain Daniel DeGryse, the EAP Coordinator for the Chicago Firefighters Union, Local 2. There have been four in the past four months that the union is aware of, said DeGryse. The Chicago Fire Department has nearly 5,000 sworn members.

According to Elizabeth Crowe, the Human Relations Coordinator for the Chicago Fire Department, the fire department saw the largest spike in suicides around the year 2007. Some of the members were active duty, and others were retired and/or disabled.

"We have written articles about suicide, visited firehouses, and created a 'Family Focus Day' geared at offering a venue that members and their families can be exposed to resources available to them," said DeGryse.

Crowe said the event, which is open to firefighters and their families, is now in its third year. Every year various speakers attend the event to provide families a variety of support in areas including finances, budgeting, pension planning, marital conflict, substance abuse, grief issues, senior issues, children's programs, and other resources.

According to Salem, Oregon's Deputy Fire Chief, Greg Hadley, the fire department experienced three suicides in a recent span of several years. Two were retired members, and one firefighter was active duty, he said.

The department' however, is very small, with only approximately 160 members. He said the department has been exploring various programs that may help employees better understand suicide, its effects on survivors, and ways to reach out and receive the help they need.

California Highway Patrol
Police officers, like firefighters, are at a greater risk for committing suicide because of the unique stresses of their jobs.

For example, between 2003 and 2007, the California Highway Patrol, an organization with approximately 11,000 personnel, suffered thirteen suicides within its ranks.

Organization leaders addressed the situation in 2008 by implementing a suicide prevention program called Not One More, and crisis experts called it a success.

During 2008 and 2009, the organization reported no suicides. However, during 2010, there have been three.

The agency is currently working on refresher training and stress resiliency training for staff members.

The program involved mandatory training for every single CHP employee. Initially, mental health professionals from the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation helped train 65 employees. Those trainers, in turn, trained everyone else within CHP across the state.

Valley departments

According to Phil Rohe, a Tempe Senior Fire Inspector, the Tempe Fire Department has had no recent suicides within the department. He said he has been with the department for seventeen years and does not recall any suicides during that time.

The Tempe Fire Department has a Crisis Intervention Team, which includes members of the fire department, to help offer assistance to crews who seek it.

The City of Tempe also offers crisis care counseling. The department has 153 sworn members.

According to Paul Bourgeois, a Battalion Chief in the City of Mesa, there have been no recent suicides within the Mesa Fire Department . It has been at least a decade, he said.

However, "we have noticed a spike in stress and workplace stress," said Bourgeois. "The conditions of the economy are certainly not helping the situation," he added.

As a result of the recent increase in stress as well as the situation occurring in the City of Phoenix, Bourgeois helped organize the first annual Family Support Day for the Mesa Fire Department.

The special day, which occurred in late October, was designed to help families learn more about stress and stress management. A variety of speakers addressed stress and health-related issues, Bourgeois said. Also, members of the local firefighter union explained how they are working to protect firefighters' jobs and benefits and the fire chaplain was available to address questions and concerns.

Bourgeois said some of the firefighters at the Mesa Fire Department are handling a lot of stress. There have been a lot of "really horrible" calls recently, and some firefighters are also experiencing tough economic situations including losing their homes.

In addition to the support day, the fire department also has a Critical Incident Stress Management team available to help their peers decompress after a trauma or a tragic event. The team has been available for years, said Bourgeois, but in recent years it has evolved to become more accessible to members

The Mesa Fire Department also offers an Employee Assistance Program which includes some free counseling sessions for members and their families.

According to Daniel Valenzuela, the public information officer for the Glendale Fire Department' there have been no recent suicides within the department. He said he does

not recall suicides ever at the department, and he has been working for Glendale for seven years.

The department does offer an Employee Assistance Program as well as counselors. The department also has a peer counseling program, in which members of the fire department are encouraged to talk with peers about the situations they have witnessed.

The peer counselors attend a national training curriculum which includes group counseling and one-on-one counseling before becoming peer counselors.

Valenzuela said Glendale firefighters are always encouraged to talk about the calls they've handled with their peers, and sometimes a unit is taken out of service for peer counseling after a traumatic event.

The Glendale Fire Department has approximately 230 members.

In Tucson, Capt. Trish Tracy, the Tucson Fire Department public information officer, said she could not remember a time when the department experienced suicides. She said she has been on the department for approximately twenty years.

"We really take every opportunity to pay attention to these types of things," she said.

Tracy said Tucson firefighters have an Employee Assistance Program coordinated through Cigna. When an employee needs mental health assistance, he or she can receive some free counseling sessions.

A City of Tucson physician also helps to monitor health and wellness, she said. Annually, firefighters must undergo physicals in which they must fill out a health questionnaire. The questionnaire includes questions about stress.

During particularly stressful or traumatic fire calls, a crew can be taken out of service, she said.

Suicide information and resources
"Emergency workers are at a higher risk for suicide," said Tom McSherry, the president of Crisis Preparation and Recovery, Inc ., based in Scottsdale, AZ. "It's a combination of the job stressors and what they experience and what's going on at home."

In Arizona, at least 11 first responders killed themselves in 2008, and 11 first responders killed themselves statewide in 2009, according to data collected by the Arizona Department of Public Health.

A spokesperson told us the numbers may include police, fire personnel, and paramedics, but they do not include retired personnel. The data is based on the cause of death information pulled from death certificates.

The highest suicide rate, however, was among workers who were involved with construction, an industry recently hit hard by unemployment and the economy.

According to a Centers for Disease Control suicide fact sheet' suicide is the 11th leading cause of death among Americans, leaving more than 34,000 people dead each year.

Men are nearly four times as likely to kill themselves. According to the CDC fact sheet, they make up 79 percent of all suicides in the United States.

There are many resources for suicide prevention, including the Arizona Suicide Prevention Coalition, Magellan of Arizona, The Suicide Prevention Resource Center, Centers for Disease Control, The West Coast Post-Trauma Retreat' National Suicide Prevention Lifeline' Teen Lifeline

Suicide risk factors
According to the Centers for Disease Control, risk factors for suicide include the following:

Previous suicide attempts, depression, mental illness, substance abuse, family history of suicide, physical illness, feeling alone

"If an individual wants to complete (suicide), they will tell you what you want to hear," said McSherry. "There are signs and symptoms. Sometimes they are very subtle."

The Arizona Suicide Prevention Coalition listed the following warning signs on its website:

Talks about committing suicide, has trouble eating or sleeping, experiences drastic behavior changes, withdraws from friends and/or social activities, loses interest in hobbies, work, or school, prepares for death by making a will, gives away possessions, has attempted suicide before, takes unnecessary risks, has had recent severe losses, is preoccupied with death, loses interest in their appearance, increases their use of alcohol or drugs.

According to their website, the following are ways to be helpful when someone is threatening suicide:

  • Be direct. Talk openly and matter-of-factly about suicide.
  • Be willing to listen. Allow expressions of feelings. Accept the feelings.
  • Be non-judgmental. Don't debate whether suicide is right or wrong, or feelings are good or bad. Don't lecture on the value of life.
  • Get involved. Become available. Show interest and support.
  • Don't dare him or her to do it.
  • Don't act shocked. This will put distance between you.
  • Don't be sworn to secrecy. Seek support.
  • Offer hope that alternatives are available but do not offer glib reassurance.
  • Take action. Remove means, such as guns or stockpiled pills.
  • Get help from persons or agencies specializing in crisis intervention and suicide prevention.

Republished with permission from ABC15.com.

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