The Elephant in the Room


CarolinaFireJournal - By David Greene
By David Greene
10/26/2015 -

As the title of this article suggests, I would like to address the elephant in the room. For those of you not familiar with the metaphorical idiom, “the elephant in the room” refers to an obvious risk or problem that is not discussed or otherwise ignored. I will begin this article with a true story. This story involves two law enforcement officials, both of whom were my neighbors. I will call one of them Jim and the other Bob. Jim and Bob did not work for the same law enforcement agency but being that it was a small neighborhood, we were all “neighborly.”

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Did you know that there are 59 fire service line of duty deaths (LODD’s) in 2015 to date? There were 86 LODD’s last year, 107 in 2013 and 82 in 2012.

On a balmy July night five years ago, I was awakened after midnight by the sound of radio and phone alerts. While this was not unusual, the alert was for a gunshot wound. This helped my eyes to open wide a little more quickly. After hearing and reading the address, I understood that the shooting incident was on my street — perhaps at my next-door neighbor’s. I leapt from my bed and ran out the door. My first thought was that my neighbor had a home invasion and had either shot someone or was shot himself.

We didn’t live in a particular bad area of town, but at the time, it never occurred to me that it could be any other type of incident. I started out of the driveway in my department issued vehicle, turned right and couldn’t really accelerate as the incident was that close to my front door. I got out of the car to find Jim, my neighbor, holding a shotgun. I quickly asked where the shooting victim was and he said, “In their back yard.” My attention was then diverted to a screaming bystander that I recognized to be Bob’s, my other neighbor’s, girlfriend. The pieces started to connect in my mind.

I asked Jim, “Is that Bob that is shot?” Jim replied, “Yeah.” At this point I was grabbing two bags and a cardiac monitor when I stopped and looked at Jim. I asked, “Is he dead?” Jim replied, “Yeah, yeah, I’m sure.” With my teeth clinched, I headed to the back yard. The vision of what I found will never vacate from my mind. It is forever stored among hundreds of other visions in that holding area of my brain where the “bad calls” live.

Bob had committed suicide using his service weapon in the back yard of one of our neighbors and across the street from Jim’s house. Bob and I were not close, but I considered him a friend and a neighbor. I also considered him a brother in service, as both the “blue team” and “red team” folks have vowed the same self-sacrificial pledge. The night of his death, I recalled sitting with Bob in my living room a month or two before talking about various training opportunities. He’d recently stopped me and told me about a training course in New Mexico that he returned from and how phenomenal the knowledge he gained was. Even today, I can recall him arriving home from a night shift as I went out the door to begin a shift. We would often stop and fist bump each other. I’d say, “Tag me in” as he was going off duty while I was coming on-duty. As I leaned on the front of my truck that night, I struggled to comprehend what would have brought Bob to take his own life. I’ll get back to that in a minute.

At this point, you may be thinking that this is a sad story and has nothing to do with you. If you are in the fire service, law enforcement or EMS, this has EVERYTHING to do with you. Did you know that there are 59 fire service line of duty deaths (LODD’s) in 2015 to date? There were 86 LODD’s last year, 107 in 2013 and 82 in 2012. Thanks to the firefighter behavioral health alliance, which has begun to quantify the number of suicides in the fire service, we can begin to understand the scope of the firefighter suicide problem.

The firefighter behavioral health alliance has begun to track firefighter suicides using a confidential reporting system. According to their data, which is likely underestimated due to low reporting, there have been 77 firefighter suicides this year to date. There were 104 last year, 68 in 2013 and 70 in 2012. HEY – we’ve lost more firefighters to suicide this year than we have in the line of duty. Do you still think this has nothing to do with you? This is a problem, right here, right now. I must admit that I was not aware of its magnitude until recently. The body politic and those we serve demand that we put our lives at risk. A calculated risk/benefit analysis and training can help to lower the numbers of line of duty deaths. I am not sure that they will ever be completely eliminated, but suicide is different. Suicide is not a line of duty death. The number of suicides should be zero each and every year. Why does a firefighter or police officer like Bob commit suicide?

That question has no easy answer. There is surely a lot of speculation after someone commits suicide. If you cruise Facebook for a while following a suicide, you’ll probably come up with a few hundred theories pretty quickly as to why it occurred. I think that I heard the best answer from the preacher that presided over Bob’s funeral. We will say the preacher’s name was Ted. It was one of the most powerful services I have ever attended. Ted said that Bob frequently took classes to better himself. The training he gained made him a better police officer. This helped his knowledge base and worked out his brain. Ted said that Bob could also frequently be found in the gym. He was an avid weightlifter and continually worked out to build his muscles. As Ted explained, this made Bob a better law enforcement officer also. By working out, he could fend off attackers by using his strength to overpower and arrest those who break the law. Ted said that Bob was not any different from all of us. He paused for a good minute and scanned the church full of firefighters and law enforcement. Ted continued, “All of you work out your brains and your bodies to perform your jobs to the best of your abilities. But rarely do you spend time working out your hearts. You see, emotional training is just as important as physical training or learning how to cuff someone or put a fire out.” Preacher Ted continued with, “Bob was strong enough to fight almost any attacker and possessed the knowledge to thwart almost any criminal. But the other night, Bob’s demons overcame him because he was not emotionally strong enough to fight them.” That sank in as Preacher Ted paused for another minute ending with the words that boomed throughout the church, “This does not have to happen again,” Preacher Ted pounded his fist on the pulpit with each word. “Take care of yourselves and take care of each other,” Preacher Ted concluded.

Preacher Ted could not have been more right. In our service, as I’m sure it is among the “blue team,” you are frowned upon, ridiculed, and patronized if you admit to feeling anything outside of the norm. The norm is that we take the emotional baggage from home — troubled relationship, financial problems, divorce, etc. — and we respond to the next call, which may be a decapitated child. Afterwards, we are not supposed to cry or be upset because this is our profession. It is the one we chose. We are supposed to carry on and not let it bother us. We put those emotions in that back part of our brains where the “bad calls” live and stuff our emotions regarding anything that is wrong outside of work in there with it. Then we go to the next call where our customer is expecting that some caring, compassionate firefighters will solve their problems, whatever they may be.

It’s hard to be caring and compassionate when you have suppressed all of your emotions. The other question is what happens when the “bad calls” tank gets full? We must allow some release. Now, some will suggest some pretty creative release methods, such as the liberal use of alcohol and “blowing off some steam.” Remember that alcohol is a depressant and waking up in a jail cell with no recollection of how or why you got there is likely not conducive to improving your emotional baggage. I’m not a doctor, but when you are depressed over personal and professional emotional baggage, the last thing you probably need is something else to depress you. The method I propose for release is simply this. Talk to someone. Talk about what is bothering you to your spouse, your partner, your supervisor, a counselor, a psychologist, your preacher or someone.

The number of suicides in 2012 represents 85 percent of those we lost in LODD’s. In 2013, the number of suicides was 64 percent of the number of firefighters we lost in LODD’s. In 2014, firefighter suicides represented 121 percent of the number of LODD’s. This year to date, we have lost 31 percent more firefighters committing suicide than we have lost in LODD incidents. Make no mistake, this has everything to do with you. You may not be struggling with your emotions, but look around your department. That person that looks like they are calling for help, is probably calling for help. Help them, talk to them, and get them to talk to a professional if necessary. Help your co-workers. If you are the one that needs help, I implore you, PLEASE talk to someone and get help. As Preacher Ted said, “THIS DOES NOT HAVE TO HAPPEN AGAIN. TAKE CARE OF YOURSELVES AND TAKE CARE OF EACH OTHER.”

Be safe and do good.

David Greene has over 20 years experience in the fire service and is currently the Assistant Chief with Colleton County (SC) Fire-Rescue. He is currently working on his PhD through Oklahoma State University. He is a certified Executive Fire Officer through the National Fire Academy, holds the Chief Fire Officer Designation and is an adjunct instructor for the South Carolina Fire Academy. He can be reached at [email protected].
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