Firefighters Address Alarming Suicide Rates

Nationwide, 21 firefighters have taken their own lives so far this year

Picture a firefighter, and an image comes to mind of a compassionate, heroic figure, risking his or her own life while defying the external forces which could possibly cause them harm.

But some in the firefighting service say that very image, stoicism in the face of danger, masks a dark secret -- that firefighters themselves endure intense emotional turmoil, and that some take their own lives, unable to cope with that pain.

"I've been on this job going on 25 years, and I was only aware of one suicide, and that was 15 years ago," says Chicago battalion chief Dan Degryse. "Then, in a period of '08 and '09, we had seven suicides in eighteen months. In 2010, we had four in five months."

Chicago is certainly not alone. Nationwide, the numbers have alarmed even hardened veterans of the firefighting fraternity.

"When I started looking, and doing research, the numbers really started to pour in," says Palatine fire captain Jeff Dill.

Since 2011, Dill has tracked national numbers, and his workshop, "Saving Those Who Save Others", is booked solid into next year.

Dill has studied nearly 500 suicides, including 58 each in 2012 and 2013. There were 11 last year in Illinois. So far this year, Dill says, there have been 21 nationwide.

"My personal belief is that once we put that uniform on, we brainwash ourselves into, 'this is how we have to act, this is how the community expects us to act.' We cannot show any type of weakness," Dill says.

While no one is sure why the numbers are high, all agree that the cumulative effect of repeated tragedies, often begins to eat away at even the toughest heroes.

"Our firefighters and paramedics see the type of trauma and type of things that nobody else would see in a lifetime," says the Chicago Fire Department's Elizabeth Crowe. "They see some horrific things."

Crowe notes that Chicago has made an effort to begin addressing the issue before new recruits ever enter the fire service. The future stresses of the job are addressed at the city's fire academy. And at yearly Family Focus days, firefighters are encouraged to share the challenges of their jobs with family.

"If there is an event, we tell them, go home and talk to your families," she said. "They may not want to hear the details, and it's probably not important that they hear them, but let them know, this was a tough one."

Degryse agrees. "We just don't talk about the things that happened," he says. "Not on a single day, week, or month. But we're in a career for 25, 35, 37 years. And it takes a toll."

"We need to take care of ourselves from day one. Not day 59, or 22 years into your career."

Indeed, both Degryse and Dill note that they have detected especially heartbreaking numbers concerning retirees. Some theorize that while the tragedies involving women and children have taken a toll, many also miss the camaraderie of their own firefighting families.

"I've had numerous firefighters take their lives just a week into retirement," Dill says. "And they are young, in their fifties."

Alan Diercks lived that pain first hand. His son Todd, a firefighter with the Newport Township Fire Protection District, took his own life at the age of 33.

"I know for a fact, that one morning Todd came back, when he was early on his career, and I asked him how his shift went, and I could tell he was kind of hurt by what he saw," he said. "A lot of firefighters expect they are going to be fighting fires all the time, but where he was stationed, it was close to the state line, terrible accidents happen there."

An injury forced Todd's retirement. But his father says the melancholy remained. And he wanted to go back.

"He used to talk about his dark cloud that hung over him," Diercks says. "Todd's fear always was, he didn't want to ask, because once you ask, you show your vulnerability that you're not strong enough to do the job. And that's definitely not the intent of folks in this compassion business."

It's the reason Dill and Degryse are so passionate about their outreach efforts to fellow firefighters.

"What we try to do is lead by example," Degryse says. "Unless it's a unified effort, it's going to continue. And I don't want to see the numbers go up."

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