Saving Our Own

by Daniel DeGryse BA, BS, CEAP, LAP/C, CADC
Coordinator, Chicago Firefighters’ Union Local 2’s EAP

First responders deal with traumatic experiences each and every day they work that most people would not want to see let alone experience in a lifetime. Traumatic situations make an impact on everyone involved. Those who are in and have been in the fire service for even a few years can recall in distinct detail, troubling runs that have stayed with them. The scenes may include fatalities at motor vehicle accidents, murder scenes, injury or death of a child, burn victims, among other tragic scenes. Many of us have also been witness to a fellow rescuer’s injury and even death at the scene of an incident. Despite the psychological difficulty and processing this may bring, many of us can work through the emotions brought on by these incidents and move forward. On the other hand, one incident that very few can understand is the unimaginable act of a fellow responder taking their own life by suicide.

In 2008, the Chicago Fire Department was faced with not one occurrence of suicide, but five. Tragically, we experienced seven suicides of active and retired members in an eighteen month period between February of 2008 and August of 2009. If you think this was perplexing, less than a year later we experienced another four suicides between May 2010 and August 2010.

Adding to the perplexity of the suicides is that six of these eleven where committed by retirees. People who spent their careers responding to crisis situations helping others, people we became close to and relied on to keep us safe, friends who went on to celebrate starting the next part of their lives only to end it all at their own hands. We who worked with them and befriended them are left with the pain, anger, frustration, sadness, and disbelief of this act just as if he or she were still with us on our 24 hour shifts. Is there a false assumption that if one “makes it” through their career then all is good and no ill effects of the job linger? What about our active members who have committed suicide? We see them for 24 hours at a time. How could we not see signs of the despair they felt, or did we see signs of something in their behaviors but minded our own business and never asked?

We knew we had to do something. We just weren’t sure what. We have a general knowledge of how to address grief and loss as a result of a death, but from suicide? There are no specific manuals that exist outlining for us how to respond to or cope with a suicide, let alone a series of them. My office’s response to these suicides was two-fold; one was education and the other research.

On a continuous basis we are educating our membership on our employee assistance program (EAP) and services through presentations, articles, and brochures placed in fire houses. We wanted to make a more substantial, direct impact so we began with face-to-face contact. We visited firehouses, introduced ourselves to put faces to our names, we outlined our EAP services, we explained how to access our services, and we answered any questions members had about how we can help them. We also provided educational articles on various behavioral health topics, passed out our program’s brochure again and lists of referral sources members could utilize for a myriad of circumstances.

Finally, after months of discussion amongst my staff and collaboration with fire department officials, we created and developed Chicago Fire Department’s “Family Focus Day”. On this day we invited members and their families to our Fire Academy so they could participate in a variety of activities to better acquaint themselves on resources that are available to them. Included were workshops on topics such as relationships, depression, substance abuse, parenting issues, as well as financial planning. We also had over forty different resources that included self-help organizations, mental health treatment centers, substance abuse treatment centers, chiropractors, holistic centers, fire department Chaplains, and nutritionists on hand to speak directly with our members.

In addition, attendees were offered lunch, a chance to meet our Chicago Fire Commissioner, a walk through the “Survive Alive house” at our Public Education facility next door, and a chance to win door prizes. In its first year, this event drew over six hundred members and their families. We have since held this event for three consecutive years with similar attendance.

The second action my office took was to research information regarding suicides within our department with the intent of comparing statistics to other fire departments nationally. When researching data to compare ours, I could not find any public information on suicide statistics for any fire departments across the country. We became more driven to collect information from within our department and to obtain a baseline on this unaddressed issue within the fire service.

After looking at 1,787 deaths between 1990 and 2010, we discovered there were 41 suicides of an active or retired member of the Chicago Fire Department during this period. Statistics of active and retired members who committed suicide were relatively equal with twenty active and twenty-one retired. We also saw a similar comparison regarding military service where nineteen members had military service and twenty-two did not. Once we adjusted our statistics to compare to the numbers recorded nationally for the general population our data showed an incident rate of 25 per 100,000, where nationally it typically averaged 11 for the same time period.

While these numbers appear to imply a higher incidence rate amongst our members, until another study is done within our department or the fire service we are left with no equal comparison. In the meantime, what I can tell you is since the writing of our study in 2010 there has been 182 deaths of active and retired members in the past two years and only one has been as a result of suicide. While we consider one suicide as tragic as any number, we are encouraged we have not experienced more.

What can be concluded from our research and what proactive measures to take are still debatable. Questions like, have the programs we implemented addressed and reduced the number of suicides within our membership? More time and numbers will tell. In the interim, my staff and I believe only continued communication/discussion, increased awareness, networking, proper assessments, and appropriate referrals will address the issue of suicides as well as situations and circumstances that may contribute to them.

Dan DegryseIf you are interested in reading more on the research we conducted regarding suicides within the Chicago Fire Department you can go HERE for the published report, or read it on Peggy’s website by clicking HERE.

About the Author: Dan DeGryse is a Captain/EMT with the Chicago Fire Department with 23 years of service.  He is the Coordinator of the Chicago Firefighters’ Union Local 2′s Employee Assistance Program and a standing member of the IAFF Labor/EAP committee.  Dan is a Certified Employee Assistance Professional (CEAP), a Certified Labor Assistance Professional (LAP/C), a Certified Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselor (CADC), and has advanced training in Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM).  He has written articles, given speeches, and collaborated with others on the behavioral health of members in the Fire Service.  Dan has a Bachelor of Science degree in Fire Science Management from Southern Illinois University and a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology from Wabash College. He and his wife, Victoria, have been married for eighteen years and four children.

Captain Daniel DeGryse B.A., CEAP, CADC
Coordinator, Local 2’s EAP
440 West 43rd Street
Chicago, Illinois 60609
773-358-3473 (w)
773-875-3560 ©