On Friday, May 17, the Urbana Fire Division along with other fire departments across the country participated in “We Remember,” a nationwide effort by the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance to put a spotlight on firefighters and their families during Mental Health Awareness Month. Firefighters taking their own life is almost at epidemic levels within the profession. Recent studies have shown that first responders (policemen and firefighters) are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty. For example, in 2017 there were 103 reported firefighter and 140 police officer suicides. In contrast, 93 firefighters and 129 police officers died in the line of duty. Additionally, another study reports that 47% of firefighters have reported ideation of suicide compared to 14% of the general population and 14% of firefighters have attempted suicide compared to 9% of the general population.
This is a difficult profession that we are in. We see the worst that humanity has to offer and even though we try our best, we are sometimes unsuccessful in providing a successful outcome. I believe that it is often these factors beyond the first responder’s control that often haunt them throughout their career and beyond. I am currently part of the Ohio Fire Chief’s Association (OFCA) Safety, Health, and Wellness Committee, which is working on results from a statewide behavior health survey of first responders. We are close to issuing our results and hopefully it will lead to appropriately addressing behavioral health and emotional issues among Ohio’s firefighters and EMS professionals. Our first step is to begin to understand the problems and potential impacts of job-related exposures for first responders. This is why I am on the State Secondary Trauma task force. I believe the task force has drawn attention from the governor and may be in line for resources to help first responders cope and address behavioral concerns.
For me it is personal. Just this year alone I have known three Ohio firefighters who have taken their own life. Additionally, my brother-in-law (who was a fire captain for a West Columbus fire department) took his own life some years back. My brother-in-law was one of the best firefighters I have known. We grew up together in the fire service and he was admired by all that who knew him. I believe there were a couple of incidents that haunted him, most likely because he was unable to provide a positive outcome for all involved. Knowing him, if there was going to be a positive outcome, he was the person who you would have wanted to lead the way. However, in behavioral health what matters most is how the individual perceives and copes with these types of issues.
I believe that what firefighters are going through is no different than the general population. However, firefighters are often exposed to traumatic events more often than others, which is why we are seeing a spike in behavioral concerns greater than the general population. Heading into Friday, I asked my firefighters at the division to join the cause in bringing a spotlight to behavioral health by turning their emergency lights on at 9 p.m. Friday. It brought tears to my eyes to see what the firefighters produced on their Facebook page. They went way beyond my expectations — I would be lying to you though if I said I was surprised.
To be honest with you, we have excellent, caring individuals at our division, they care about each other and they care for our community. However, the time and effort our crews put into that video tells me that we have some special people who fight fires and save lives for the Urbana community. They went way beyond my expectations and I also think they understand this is more than bringing awareness about firefighter behavioral health. As a division, we respond to behavioral health concerns almost daily. I know myself along with our firefighters understand that the concern for behavioral health goes beyond firefighters and we will do whatever it takes to make positive differences in the lives of those affected by these concerns.
Dean Ortlieb is the chief of the Urbana Fire Division.