For Dallas firefighters and paramedics, saving lives is a calling. But what happens when one of their own needs saving?
The recent suicide of one of Dallas Fire-Rescue’s nearly 1,900-member force is bringing uncomfortable conversations to the forefront.
Earlier this year, the 37-year-old firefighter was arrested on a DWI charge. Under the department’s policy, he was put into a two-year rehabilitation program that required him to take regular breathalyzer and drug tests.
After failing a breathalyzer test earlier this month, the nine-year veteran went home and killed himself. Blood alcohol content of .02 or higher, significantly less than the .08 for regular drivers, is considered a failure.
By department policy, there's a strong possibility he would have been fired. “It’s a loss for our department,” Dallas Fire-Rescue Chief David Coatney said. “After spending hours with his crew, I saw the pain as we talked about their memories of him. It was very much like losing a family member.”
Jim McDade, president of the Dallas Fire Fighters Association, trained the firefighter and knew him well. “I was absolutely devastated because he was my friend,” McDade says. “I started asking questions of myself. What could I have done?”
In the profession, there’s a growing recognition that alcoholism, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and suicides are real problems that can’t be ignored.
One 2015 study of 1,000 firefighters found nearly half had suicidal thoughts at some point in their career. About 15 percent considered suicide.
Here are other sobering statistics:
- A 2015 survey found the rate of attempted suicide was more than 10 times the rate found in the general population.
- Alcohol abuse among firefighters is roughly two to three times that of the general population.
- One in five firefighters experiences PTSD, double the rate of the general population.
“This is a problem endemic to the fire service,” Coatney says. “It’s pervasive as well.”
In 2016, the Arizona-based Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance confirmed the suicides of 99 firefighters and 36 EMS workers. More firefighters die by their own hand than in the line of duty, says Jeff Dill, the organization’s founder.
Dill, a licensed professional counselor and retired fire captain, estimates only about 40 percent of firefighter and EMS suicides get reported.
“I understand why my dad told me as a kid do not get in this profession,” says Brian Meroney, a third-generation firefighter who's written about PTSD issues for firefighting publications. The retired Saginaw firefighter is now chief in Brady.
“If you ask firefighters, every one of them is going to tell you that they know a firefighter or two that’s killed themselves,” he says. “That’s a sad truth.”
The culture among firefighters and paramedics has long been not to ask for help. Some find temporary relief in the bottle.
“The F-word among firefighters is feeling,” says Steve Calvert, founder of Champion Responders, a group that conducts critical stress incident debriefings throughout North Texas.
Calvert is a former volunteer firefighter and currently serves as a volunteer chaplain with the Coppell Fire Department. He's seen the stress of the job become too much.
“It's like the file cabinet just falls over, and then they all come out,” Calvert says. “That's when a lot of times especially if there's not a culture of support, [they] feel overwhelmed, and it's easier to consider options like taking your life.”
The culture is slowly changing.
When Calvert counsels first responders, he asks them to reflect on what they’ve seen and heard.
“Basically we normalize stress,” he says. “You can’t get it out of your mind. That’s normal what you’re doing is having very normal reactions to a very horrific, abnormal circumstance.”
Calvert also conducts a four-hour training called, “In for the Long Haul,” that teaches first responders techniques for dealing with the trauma.
He started Champion Responders after his experience in West, Texas. He spent weeks working with first responders and the families of loved ones killed in the fertilizer explosion.
In one case, he counseled a paramedic and his wife, a nurse. He later received a text from the paramedic thanking him for saving his life. Before talking to Calvert, the paramedic had planned to kill himself the next day.
“People don’t realize what a typical firefighter or medic just sees and touches and smells,” he says. “That builds up.”
Chief Coatney encourages his firefighters to ask for help. The department has peer support teams and conducts critical incident stress debriefings after particularly difficult calls.
“The fire service has to change,” Coatney says. “It's difficult for people to come forward and show any form of weakness, but it really takes a stronger person to come forward than to internalize it.”
Since last July, there have been at least 13 Dallas firefighters disciplined for mostly alcohol-related offenses. Seven have resigned as a result.
Under prior fire chiefs, it would have been a virtual certainty that the firefighter who killed himself would have been fired under department policy, which amounts to a two-strike approach.
Coatney has been moving away from that policy and has, in some cases, given firefighters and paramedics a third chance if they can show they’ve sought help for their problems.
“Chief Coatney has been very different about this,” McDade said. “From the day he walked in the door, he recognized that there was an issue going on and instead of just continuing the punitive policy, he has been attempting to change the policy and address the core problem.”
The chief was reluctant to talk about the issues. He worried that anything he said would discourage his members from seeking help.
“We don’t want to dissuade someone from coming forward when they have a problem because of a negative perception,” the chief says.
Shortly after Coatney became chief 15 months ago, he began requiring firefighters with on-duty incidents to see a counselor. He hasn’t been able to do something similar for firefighters involved in off-duty incidents for legal reasons.
“I want everybody in our department to understand there's better ways to manage things than to drink,” he says. “And getting out and talking to people is the best way.”
McDade’s association also decided to make changes after the firefighter's suicide.
“When a member comes to us wanting representation on a discipline issue relating to substance abuse, we're going to require them to go speak to a counselor,” he says.
No longer will firefighters who fail a test be sent home. They will now keep them there for the remainder of the shift.
“I'll never understand what drove him to it, but we have to do everything we can to prevent this from ever happening again,” McDade says.
They are a family. Families need to take care of each other.
Here are some resources to get help: