New study sheds light on questions about suicide in the fire service

Data reinforces need for more research on behavioral health issues

Every day the public relies on firefighters to respond without hesitation to manage and resolve multiple emergencies, often while putting themselves in high-risk situations. But does this kind of stress take an unusual toll on the emotional health of the men and women in the fire service? In the wake of multiple suicides within departments around the country, fire service leaders have asked if firefighters are more vulnerable to suicidal tendencies.

A new national study of 1,000 firefighters by researchers from Florida State University (FSU) reveals nearly half of the respondents say they had suicidal thoughts at one or more points in their firefighting career. Furthermore, approximately 15 percent reported one or more suicide attempts.

While these preliminary results may seem high, they are not conclusive. The study’s authors, Ian H. Stanley, Melanie A. Hom, Christopher R. Hagan and Thomas E. Joiner, Ph.D, strongly recommend more research in this area to replicate and further understand rates and associated features of suicidal tendencies among firefighters.

“We believe this research is a first step to address this growing concern within the fire service and direct more attention to making psychological support available to our nation’s firefighters,” said Chief Ronald J. Siarnicki, executive director of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.

“It’s important to be cautious and remember that this is the first analysis of its kind regarding firefighter suicide. We look forward to subsequent studies which will provide us with more data, or point us in additional directions.”

Under the Everyone Goes Home® program, the Foundation has been at the forefront in developing a consensus-driven agenda to focus efforts and resources to address the behavioral health needs of firefighters and their families, as outlined in Firefighter Life Safety Initiative #13.

As a first step in coordinating industry-wide efforts to address the issue of suicide, the Foundation convened a summit meeting in July 2011 with fire service leadership and prominent researchers on suicide and mental health, including Dr. Joiner. A second meeting was convened in October 2013 to further assess intervention and prevention practices. From those meetings, the NFFF developed a variety of resources for fire service leaders and behavioral health professionals, including a Clinician’s Guide and a Chief’s Guide to Suicide.

Several courses, including After Action Review and Stress First Aid, are available through the FireHero Learning Network. These resources are designed so colleagues and officers can provide support and identify early-warning signs that may warrant professional intervention.

“The NFFF is committed to increasing the focus on behavioral health,” said Siarnicki. “We don’t want firefighters to get to the point of feeling hopeless and that suicide is the only option. We want to be sure firefighters recognize the warning signs in themselves and each other so they can get the help they need.”

The article appeared recently in the Journal of Affective Disorders. Data were obtained from a sample of 1,027 current and retired firefighters who completed a nationwide web-based survey on mental health.