Firefighter violence: Prevention involves awareness, support and treatment options

Fire departments are not immune from workplace violence, so we must develop meaningful support and treatment systems


Every firefighter can tell you what happened on September 11, 2001. Only a few will remember what happened on September 13 that year.

On that day, a Denver Fire Department assistant chief went to the home of a captain who had been having some issues at work. Both men had been on the job for decades and had been friends over the years. The previous day, they worked at a fire together.      

The captain had been exhibiting some behavioral problems at work that concerned the chief, so the chief went to talk to him about what was going on and to try to find some solutions. When the chief got there, the captain shot and killed the chief and then killed himself.

Incidents of workplace violence sometimes seem mysterious and completely unexpected to others.
Incidents of workplace violence sometimes seem mysterious and completely unexpected to others. (Photo/Getty Images)

This wasn’t the first time that work-related violence took a firefighter’s life – and it wasn’t the last.

Recent and past tragedies highlight workplace stressors

In Los Angeles County last week, a firefighter was killed and another critically wounded by a coworker who later took his own life. This tragedy underscores the need to address a pattern that is uncommon but nonetheless persistent in the fire service, as it is in other work environments.

Some people seem to think that firefighters should be immune to such acts of violence by those they work with. But firefighters are only human, and they experience the same stressors that everyone else does, plus others that are unique to the job.       

The stress being experienced by any individual firefighter might be largely unknown to coworkers. Firefighters might be facing financial pressures, family crisis, relationship fracture, substance abuse, personal loss and/or grief. These stressors are in addition to those that firefighters routinely experience through the job: difficult calls, traumatic images that linger, sleep deprivation, interpersonal conflicts at work. On top of this is the fact that some people will suffer from new or worsening mental health issues. All these factors can lead to a breaking point for an individual.

Incidents of workplace violence sometimes seem mysterious and completely unexpected to others. But not usually. This is the case with workplace violence generally, and the fire service is no exception.           

On April 24, 1996, an eight-year veteran firefighter in Jackson, Mississippi, walked into fire headquarters and gunned down four people, all of whom were supervisors with the department. Prior to the workplace shootings, the man had also killed his wife. According to one coworker, the gunman “was a perfect gentleman except when you got him talking about the chiefs. He's been talking about this for years." The union president described him as “a time bomb waiting to go off.”           

On March 8, 2000, a six-year veteran Memphis, Tennessee, firefighter set a fire in his home after murdering his wife. When first responders arrived, he killed two fellow firefighters and a sheriff’s deputy. The shooter’s brother commented that the gunman had enjoyed his job “until recent personal problems developed.”

Individual and organizational responsibility

No single individual is responsible for preventing workplace violence. But individuals do have a role to play. Individuals will notice subtle or sudden changes in behavior of their friends, coworkers or family members. They may hear a coworker fantasize about committing violence against supervisors or others. They may see a family member sink into depression or substance abuse.

But individual awareness and concern are not enough. There must be systems of support in place, both organizationally and societally, to address mental health crises. Individuals must know how to get meaningful support for themselves and those they care about. Employers have a responsibility in this area. As one HR professional said, “Mental wellness isn’t on the table unless employers put it there.”

There must be good support and treatment systems available, and everyone within the organization needs to know how to access them, either for themselves or others. If these support systems are not available and familiar, people will naturally fall back into avoidance when dealing with a coworker who might be crumbling under the weight of stress and mental health challenges.

Fire departments need to acknowledge that they are not immune from the danger of workplace violence. That was proven again last week. Perhaps some tragic outcomes are unavoidable, but many more could be prevented or mitigated through preparation, training and support at the institutional level. The fire service is about keeping people safe. This same sense of mission should apply to all members in regard to mental health as well as physical risks.

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