Fire dept. produces PSA to prevent firefighter suicide

The commercial encourages firefighters to open up instead of burying their fears by reaching out to counselors or loved ones

Albuquerque Journal

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Sandoval County Fire Department lead chaplain is trying to get out in front of some troubling statistics by organizing the creation of a commercial that aims to prevent firefighter suicide, post-traumatic stress and other burdens that she said are commonplace among emergency responders.

At least two Sandoval County firefighters have committed suicide in the past three and a half years, said the department’s senior chaplain, Kathy Thibodaux, and other statistics outline higher rates of divorce, suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder among them.

So Thibodaux and a coalition of volunteers this week filmed what will eventually be a 30-second commercial that will be shown to recruits and broadcast statewide on local cable channels. The public service announcement will feature a firefighter helping a child injured in a house fire and then heading home to cope with the trauma after seeing the child get swept away in an ambulance, Thibodaux said.

The commercial goes on to encourage firefighters to open up instead of burying their fears by reaching out to counselors or loved ones.

The internalizing of trauma is a common occurrence, Thibodaux said, and many firefighters don’t know who to talk to or where to turn. As a result, they don’t tell anybody. The fire department has an employee assistance program available to them, but she said the PSA will point to another avenue and address the stigma of confronting these issues.

“So many of them are hurting, and they’re hurting in silence, and no one knows about it until it’s too late,” Thibodaux said.

SCFD employs 34 paid firefighters and more than 260 volunteer firefighters. They responded to around 300 calls for service in February and many of those calls must have been hard to shake off, Thibodaux said.

The commercial’s costs are minimal, she said, because of the number of volunteers and donations, including the use of a fire station in Rio Rancho, film students and equipment from the Central New Mexico Community College, and from actor Jeff Justus, a full-time firefighter who is making a trip on his own dime from Amarillo, Texas.

The public service announcement is just the first of what Thibodaux hopes will be a series of commercials that address the daily stresses of fighting fires and responding to emergencies.

In addition to suicide risks and post-traumatic stress, she said, other commercials could address anger management, marital problems and other issues they face. She hopes the commercials will eventually be used nationally, distributed through a network of department chaplains like herself.

“One suicide is one too many,” she said. “The devastation that it does to their family is horrible. It really hurts each of us, straight to our hearts, that we lost a brother or sister and we didn’t know that they were struggling.”

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