VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — A recent study from the Ruderman Family Foundation shows more firefighters die by suicide than line-of-duty deaths.
Fire departments in Hampton Roads are working to reduce this statistic.
Being a firefighter is not your typical day job. When the call comes, you don’t always know what you’re running into.
“If you don’t make it to that call, you have not done your job. Your job is to take care of that person on the other end of 911,” said retired Virginia Beach Fire Department Captain Dan Fentress.
It’s the fire department’s job to make sure their crews make it there and make it back home.
“We did a very good job of taking care of people physically,” said Virginia Beach Fire Department Chief Deborah Gaudet, who heads up health and safety. “Every time we had a mental health incident, we were always reactive.”
However, things changed in 2015, after a Virginia Beach firefighter had a mental health incident.
“We are tough, but we do experience emotions,” Gaudet said. “So we’ve moved away from that reactive approach and tried to get to a more proactive approach.”
In the last few years, the department has worked to create new training for firefighter peer mentors and safety shift officers. Their jobs start with making sure firefighters talk to each other.
Gaudent said, “They know when something’s going on with you, so rather than just, ‘he’s being a jerk today, let’s ignore him.’ It’s ‘hey, let’s go get a cup of coffee’.”
Fentress, who retired in 2013, remembers those sorts of conversations.
“We had some fun, we laughed a bit,” he said. But the following questions were serious, according to Fentress.
He said, “I think people like to maybe hold it in. I’m tough, I can hold it in. But maybe I need to get it out.”
Now, those conversations are more structured.
“We ask every officer after every call, not just a major fire but after every call, whether it’s a vehicle fire or whether it’s an EMS call, talk about it,” Gaudet said.
If talking to each other isn’t enough, they have a list of counselors who can help.
“It takes strength to talk about having a problem,” said Gaudet.
It does take strength, especially with people who are trained to run into danger, as Fentress often remembers.
He shared a letter with 10 On Your Side. A mother wrote it to him for his retirement; he was unable to save her young son.
“But you couldn’t have always saved all of them. I know. You came to our home in 2011 after our son Charlie fell in the pool. You couldn’t save him. Did you know you were never going to? That you were never meant to save all of them,” Fentress read from the letter. “I wanted to tell you that perhaps the worst of your job may very well be your best in the long run.”
So is this proactive approach working?
“I feel like we’re healthy, but I can’t quantify,” said Gaudet. “I can’t say we’ve had a drop of anything else. I do know people talk to people.”
That’s what makes dealing with mental wellness tricky. But for people like Fentress, whose son is following in his footsteps, he’s thankful these programs are in place.
“To have a department that recognized that ‘hey we need to get on this, let’s get ahead of it. Let’s get ahead of it and take care of our people’ that’s great,” Fentress said.
So when he looks back on the ups and downs of his 40 years with the department, he knows his fellow firefighters had his back.
If you are in crisis and need immediate help, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.
Other firefighter suicide prevention resources:
NOTE: If you are in crisis, you can call the 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 and get more information at this link.