You are probably not going to enjoy reading this article, but you should read it anyway. You
probably will not enjoy thinking about the problem being discussed, but you should think about it
anyway. You hope and pray that it is not an issue that will touch your life, but the reality is that it
probably already has…………please keep reading!
Hearing that a fellow firefighter has died in the line of duty is devastating news. Hearing that a
fellow firefighter has taken their own life is also devastating because it is so difficult and
confusing as we seek to understand the “why” behind their action. Many firefighters, company,
and chief officers immediately begin asking themselves if there was something they missed in a
casual conversation, something they should have interpreted differently, something they should
have realized was the action of a person in a depressed state. It is a natural reaction to scroll
through the “what ifs” looking to see how we could have prevented their death. As we have often
heard it said, hindsight almost always gives us 20/20 vision.
Unfortunately, society has historically viewed suicide as a selfish act, the act of a person who is
not strong enough, an act of someone who is mentally unstable. However, as our level of
understanding of behavioral health issues grows, the experts have led us to a better
understanding of suicide. In the vast majority of completed suicides, depression is the major
factor. Those who suffer from depression lose hope, lose a belief that tomorrow will be less
painful than today, and come to believe that the pain, loneliness, and suffering they feel is
inevitable and will never cease. Depression is a disease that robs people of a feeling of
connection with others, with the world, and leaves them without any sense of hope that things
will be better. People who take their own life don’t see suicide as a choice; they see it as having
no other choice to make the pain stop.
Just like heart disease, cancer, or any of the other life threatening illnesses, depression is a
disease. You don’t catch it like a cold or virus and you don’t develop depression because you
are not “strong enough”. In the vast majority of cases, depression is a chemical imbalance in the
brain. For some people with this chemical imbalance, this may not be as serious an issue as it is
with firefighters because their vocations do not serve as a major contributor to this sense of
hopelessness. But, because the fire service forces people into incredibly stressful life and death
situations, on the job stressors can serve as triggers to further exacerbate baseline depression.
For many firefighters, depression becomes more severe because of the day-to-day experiences
of the sights, sounds, and stressors of the job.
It is only in recent years that, on a national basis, the fire service has come to recognize suicide
as an area of such immediate concern. Many factors played into this, but now that we see the
statistics escalating, we quickly ask, “What can (or should) we do about this?”
Awareness is the most obvious step toward developing an effective counter attack to these ever
increasing numbers. The family atmosphere of the station house is one of the most important
protective mechanisms available to firefighters. You will know when the familiar patterns of
behavior of a fellow firefighter changes and you may sense them heading into the depths of
depression. If you care about them, you’ll tell them you see it, ask what has changed, and gently
help guide them to behavioral health assistance.
Captain Jeff Dill is the founder of the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance and a professional
counselor. His list of the top five (5) suicide warning signs affecting Firefighters is an excellent
resource for all firefighters. An awareness of these key issues can be lifesaving. Caring enough
to ask someone questions about these areas may be the intervention needed to encourage
them to get the help necessary to return to full health.
Suicide Warning Signs
Isolation – becoming distant from the company around the firehouse. Does not actively
participate with his/her crew anymore.
Loss of Confidence – states they have loss of confidence in their ability to perform their skills
as a firefighter.
Sleep Deprivation – Difficulties sleeping both at the station and on off days. Loss of sleep can
be an early sign of anxiety and stress as well.
Anger – Suppressed anger can be a dangerous sign. Displacement can take place where the
firefighter takes out their anger at home instead of dealing with the issue at the firehouse.
Impulsive – i.e. purchasing guns when they have always been against guns, riding a
motorcycle recklessly, charging into a burning building against policy or procedure.
As a fire chief, you work hard to make sure your department and personnel have all the tools
and equipment necessary to provide the best level of protection possible for the citizens of your
jurisdiction. Just like bunker gear and air packs, I encourage you to see the issue of firefighter
suicide and awareness training as an additional item of personal protective equipment for all
your personnel. The South Carolina State Firefighters Association has recently implemented a
statewide suicide awareness program entitled “Finding Hope”.
For those who wish more
information about this program, please contact South Carolina Firefighter Assistance and
Support Team (F.A.S.T.) Coordinator Patti Johns at Patti@scfirefighters.org or telephone 803-
In the fire service, we often quote John 15:13, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man
lay down his life for his friends.” Firefighters most often view this verse in regard to a willingness
to risk themselves to save the life of a citizen. But to turn back the increase in firefighter suicide,
we must also expand this understanding to include being willing to ask the hard questions of
those who work with you, break bread with you, and help watch out for you on a daily basis as
well. I pray we all embrace Jesus’ words from the previous verse, John 15:12, “This is my
commandment, that ye love one another, as I have loved you.”
Rev. Doug Farmer, Low Country Firefighter Support Network