Federal employee suicide rate in 2018 was five times higher than private industry

Suicide Helping hands
St.Jude Progress

Wildland firefighters are not alone in their high rate of suicide.

From Fedsmith.com January 8, 2019:

Suicides accounted for 28% of the 124 Federal employee job-related deaths in 2018.

In contrast, suicides accounted for only 5% of the 4,779 private industry employees who died on the job in 2018.

It is OK to ask someone if they are thinking about suicide. Some people think this will spur suicide attempts but this is not accurate. Encouraging them to talk could be the first step leading them to safety.


Help is available for those feeling really depressed or suicidal.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Jim. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Who has your back?

Football players and Vets help each other — maybe the program can be adapted for firefighters

Merging vets and players
Merging Vets & Players photo.

With the suicide rate of wildland firefighters being described as “astronomical” according to information developed by Nelda St. Clair of the Bureau of Land Management in 2017, we need to be situationally aware of any proven or innovative programs that can help mitigate the issues that lead firefighters to think that’s the only option they have.

Today I learned about a program designed to merge former professional football players with veterans of the military. The goal is to give them a new team to tackle the transition together. Called Merging Vets & Players, or MVP, it shows them they are NOT alone.

Fox Sports analyst Jay Glazer and Nate Boyer, retired NFL player and former Green Beret, created MVP in 2015 to address this important challenge.

So far MVP is active in four cities where once a week the former football players and military veterans meet for one hour and 45 minutes in gyms.

Here is how it is described:

The program starts with a 30-minute workout with a warrior to their left and right to get that familiar “burn” going again in them.

The magic of the MVP begins right after with The Huddle, an hour and fifteen minutes of peer-on-peer support, a group of badasses building up fellow badasses. It reminds us of our strength, even when it doesn’t seem clear.

Merging Vets & Players
Merging Vets & Players photo.

The Huddle is where they share their challenges in transition and offer each other support and resources. MVP coaches our vets and athletes to be PROUD OF THEIR SCARS, and to use what they experienced on the battlefield or football field to EMPOWER them through the transition. We don’t run from mental health challenges, we tackle it as a team.

Too many combat vets and former professional athletes think they are alone, MVP is here to show you’re not alone. Whether it’s combat camouflage or a sports jersey, our MVP members help each other find a new identity, — find greatness again — after the uniform comes off.

Wildland firefighters have some things in common with vets and professional football players. Wildland firefighters are tactical athletes, they are members of a team, they depend on each other for success and safety, what they do can be extremely mentally and physically difficult, they are often away from their friends and families, and there are times of the year when they suddenly transition to a much different life style away from their “team”.

Maybe the MVP program could be modified, merging vets with current or transitioned firefighters. Or, it could be just firefighters.

Take a look at the two-minute video that Fox aired on Thanksgiving before the football games.

I’d love to see a group of firefighters doing the “WHO’S GOT MY BACK” call and response.

Learn more about MVP at their website and Instagram.


Help is available for those feeling really depressed or suicidal.

British Columbia initiates wildland firefighter health research

Above: Firefighters in a smoky environment on the White Tail Fire, March 8, 2019, Black Hills National Forest.

Information from the British Columbia Wildfire Service:

VICTORIA – The BC Wildfire Service has provided $305,000 to help fund two research projects looking into the health and wellness of firefighters and associated personnel. The University of Northern British Columbia and the University of Alberta are conducting these studies to learn more about how firefighting activities affect the health of fire crews.

“Our firefighters have worked hard on the front lines to keep British Columbians safe during difficult and record-setting wildfire seasons,” said Doug Donaldson, Minister of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development. “These studies will help us support their long-term health and well-being.”

Research by the University of Northern British Columbia is led by Chelsea Pelletier, PhD, who is an assistant professor with the School of Health Sciences at the University of Northern British Columbia.

A scoping review will:

  • Look holistically at the existing body of research and knowledge about wildland firefighter health and wellness (including its physical, mental and emotional dimensions) by conducting a global scan of the scientific literature;
  • Identify any modifications (based on the scientific literature and work done by wildfire management agencies elsewhere) that could be implemented in the short term to reduce potential health impacts; and
  • Identify any gaps in the work-related health knowledge of wildland firefighters and associated personnel.

The outcomes of this project and other information will help the BC Wildfire Service establish a long-term research strategy for worker health. This research is expected to be completed in the summer of 2020.

Research by the University of Alberta is led by Nicola Cherry, MD, PhD, who is the tripartite chair of occupational health with the Division of Preventive Medicine at the University of Alberta.

It is also supported by the Alberta government and aims to:

  • Examine the nature and concentration of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in the air that firefighters breathe and accumulate on their skin (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are a suite of organic compounds produced when organic material burns, some of which can be hazardous to human health);
  • Explore the practicality and effectiveness of firefighters using respiratory protective equipment; and
  • Investigate whether wildland firefighters have more chronic lung disease than other people of the same age, gender and geographic location.

So far, about 50 BC Wildfire Service firefighters have taken part in this study. Alberta firefighters are also participating. A progress report on the initial phase of this project should be released in March 2020.

National Firefighter Registry releases time line toward implementation

UPDATED at 10:45 a.m. MDT Nov. 21, 2019

On November 21 the National Firefighter Registry that is being created by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, released information about their accomplishments. We are updating this article originally published November 17, 2019 to include the new data.


Milestones from this Quarter
Much of the work this quarter focused on creating the NFR protocol, filling staffing needs, and meeting with firefighters and stakeholders about the NFR. Some of our key milestones for this quarter include:

  • Reviewed Federal Register comments made on the NFR’s Request for Information (RFI). Thank you to those that were able to provide feedback. These comments are very helpful in guiding the development of the NFR.
  • Began development of the protocol, informed consent document, and enrollment questionnaire.
  • Started gathering details on record keeping systems at fire departments to better understand what data are available and potential mechanisms for importing the data.
  • Made progress on developing requirements for the registration web portal.
  • Held discussions with representatives from select state cancer registries and related organizations to better understand cancer surveillance on a national level.
  • Hired a new health scientist, Andrea Wilkinson, formerly of the First Responder Health & Safety Laboratory at Skidmore College.
    Created the NFR webpage https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/firefighters/registry.html
  • Began formation of the NFR Advisory Committee. This committee will include at least 10 members with various backgrounds, expertise, and experience related to firefighter health and research.

Next Steps

  • Finalize protocol and consent form
  • Begin Office of Management and Budget (OMB) clearance process for enrollment questionnaire
  • Hire Health Communications Specialist
  • Continue conversations with stakeholders and obtain their support
  • Continue conversations with select fire departments throughout the country.

(Originally published at 9:54 a.m. MDT Nov. 17, 2019)

The National Firefighter Registry, originally called the Firefighter Cancer Registry in the authorizing legislation, has released very broad time-based goals for implementing a system which hopefully can identify any relationships between cancer and occupational exposure to toxicants.

Earlier this year the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, asked firefighters for input on how to maximize participation in the Registry (perhaps working on the first goal in the timeline chart). That comment period ended May 28, 2019.

From the time line, it appears that NIOSH hopes to begin enrolling firefighters sometime between 2019 and 2022.

firefighters smoke
Firefighters in a smoky environment on the White Tail Fire, March 8, 2019, Black Hills National Forest.

Previous studies, including one completed by NIOSH in 2014, have highlighted firefighters’ increased risk for certain cancers compared to the general population. However few previous studies have collected data about wildland firefighters, volunteer firefighters, or sufficient numbers of female and minority firefighters in order to draw conclusions regarding their risk of cancer.

In one study that collected data from wildland firefighters in the field, a group of researchers concluded that firefighters’ exposure to smoke can increase the risk of mortality from lung cancer, ischemic heart disease, and cardiovascular disease by 22 to 39 percent. The project only looked at the wildland fire environment, and was not a long term study of firefighters’ health.

The ultimate goal of the Registry is to better understand the link between workplace exposures and cancer among firefighters. The Registry will include all U.S. firefighters, not just those with a cancer diagnosis. The Registry also has the potential to provide a better understanding of cancer risk among subgroups such as women, minorities, and volunteers, and among sub-specialties of the fire service like instructors, wildland firefighters, and arson investigators.

From the Registry information, CDC/NIOSH will estimate an overall rate of cancer for firefighters. They might find certain groups of firefighters are at a higher risk of cancer than others based on level of exposure, geography, gender, or other factors. They may also find that certain protective measures are associated with a reduced risk for cancer, which could provide additional evidence and support for specific control interventions.

The Registry will be completely voluntary, and no one can force a person to join.

All active and retired as well as volunteer, paid-on-call, and career firefighters will be encouraged to join the Registry, regardless of their current health status.

CDC/NIOSH promises that they will always maintain participants’ privacy and will never share personal information with an outside organization including fire departments, unions, or other researchers without permission of the individual.

US Forest Service Fire Director interviewed about suicide among firefighters

Marc Mullenix
Marc Mullenix

In January 2008 a few days after Wildfire Today was created I first wrote about firefighter suicide when someone I had served with on an Incident Management Team, Marc Mullenix, took his life. Some of his past jobs included Fairmont Fire Protection District, Wildland Fire Division Chief for the Boulder Fire Department, and Fire Management Officer for Mesa Verde National Park, all in Colorado. In 2007 Marc was a Type 1 Incident Commander trainee on Kim Martin’s Incident Management Team in the Rocky Mountain Geographic Area. He was married to Shawna Legarza, a former Hotshot who is now the Director of Fire and Aviation for the U.S. Forest Service.

In the last few years we have learned that the suicide rates of wildland firefighters is “astronomical”, according to information developed by Nelda St. Clair of the Bureau of Land Management in 2017. It is high even when compared with structural firefighters, which is also higher than the general population.

In an article published at REI.com this week, Jenni Gritters interviewed Director Legarza about firefighter suicide. The piece is titled, “Reports show wildland firefighters may struggle in secret once the season ends.”

The article shines a light on the issue and is very much worth reading, but below are excerpts:

Back in 2008, Lagarza says no one knew how to react to firefighter suicides. She wondered what to say to people, and what people would say to her. She wondered how she had missed the signs. She wondered if she should go back to work at all. Eventually, she returned to school to get her Ph.D. in psychology, to try to understand suicide better. Now she runs fire programs for the U.S. Forest Service, with a special emphasis on firefighter education.

[…]

There’s no denying that there is a problem when it comes to suicide: Wildland firefighters are dying by suicide at startling rates each year, far more often than people in the general population. This is a fact that has been known within the fire community for years, often whispered and mourned, but not spoken about directly until recently, Legarza says.

Part of the reason for the silence—and lack of information—around death by suicide comes from an issue with reporting. Jeff Dill, the founder of the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance (FFBHA), says that many firefighters experience mental health struggles after they’ve gone fully off-duty for the season, which means their deaths often go unreported within agencies like the National Park Service (NPS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and U.S. Forest Service (USFS).

[…]

In 2018, a Florida State University professor and clinical psychologist who studies military suicides released a study that ruffled some feathers when it showed that wildland firefighters, in particular, were more likely to report clinically significant suicide symptoms than non-wildland firefighters. In the study, 55% of wildland firefighters reported experiencing thoughts about death by suicide, compared to 32% of non-wildland firefighters. Both of these percentages are staggering compared to NIH suicide data on the general population, which shows that 20% of people, on average, experience some suicidal thoughts.


Help is available for those feeling really depressed or suicidal.

Suicide Warning Signs
Suicide Warning Signs

Other articles on Wildfire Today about wildland firefighter suicide:

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Bill. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

US Army to adopt gender- and age-neutral fitness test

“We think the success of this study can transfer over to law enforcement, wildland firefighters, and other federal agencies,” said an instructor about a training program they have devised to prepare ROTC personnel for the Army test.

Some people have said that the Pack Test version of the Work Capacity Test required for many wildland firefighters in the United States does not adequately reflect the tasks performed on the job. Criticisms are that it has a bias toward individuals with long legs and does not sufficiently address flexibility, strength, speed, coordination, and agility. Others disagree, saying it can weed out those unfit for the job.

We created a poll on the subject:

The U.S. Army has developed a new Fitness Test that is reported to be gender- and age-neutral. To prepare and train their ROTC personnel for the test Colorado State University has designed a training regimen. Perhaps the federal land management agencies could glean some ideas from either the Army Fitness test or the training program being developed by CSU.

Below is an excerpt from an article on Colorado State University’s web site:


For more than 30 years, the U.S. Army has tested the strength and endurance of its soldiers through a battery of pushups, sit-ups and a two-mile run known as the Army Physical Fitness Test.

But soon the Army will replace this legacy test with a new gender- and age-neutral assessment consisting of six events — deadlifts, farmer’s carries, sled pulls and much more — that will impact personnel around the globe as well as right here at Colorado State University.

To prepare for the change coming in October 2020, CSU’s Army ROTC program is part of a pioneering study with the Department of Health and Exercise Science that examines the most effective training plans for the new Army Combat Fitness Test.

Lt. Col. Troy Thomas, commander of Army ROTC programs at CSU and the University of Northern Colorado, has personally endorsed the study and encouraged his cadre to pursue the most effective protocol for the 150 cadets, 28% of whom are female.

“On average, we have about seven contact hours per week with our cadets, and less than half of those hours are dedicated to physical fitness,” he said. “What we discover as the best protocol will elicit the most efficient and effective results of those three hours to achieve our scholar-athlete-leader outcomes.”

The research so far suggests hybrid training as the most effective option, and it has attracted attention and support from the U.S. Army and U.S. Department of Defense. According to the researchers involved in the study, it also could have a profound impact in helping U.S. Army Cadet Command prescribe fitness regimens to help ROTC cadets train for the new test.

“Colorado State is at the cutting edge of producing a combat fitness protocol for a very select population,” said Al Armonda, a CSU military science instructor who helped lead the study. “This falls well within our land-grant mission in filling a gap in the force that the Army needs.”

The new Army Combat Fitness Test consists of a series of six challenges designed to better connect certain fitness aspects with combat readiness such as strength, endurance, power, speed, agility, balance, flexibility, coordination and reaction time.

But for Army ROTC programs across the country, this presents a challenge.

An active-duty soldier can schedule four or five 70- to 90-minute training sessions in a typical week. For an ROTC cadet, Armonda said finding the time to properly train for the new fitness test can be difficult as they are first and foremost students.

In spring 2019, ROTC leadership and Armonda’s research team conducted a first-of-its-kind study comparing and contrasting several Army Combat Fitness Test training regimens.

The 10-week pilot study with 30 cadets showed strong evidence that a full-body, hybrid training approach — aerobic and anaerobic training, weight-lifting, body-weight exercises, plyometrics and high-intensity intervals — is far more effective than the traditional training regimens that focus solely on muscular endurance and aerobic exercise.

[…]

Department of Defense officials recently visited CSU to observe the training program and learn how they can provide support and assistance. Additional workout equipment, some of which has already been procured, is necessary as the new test requires deadlift bars, kettlebells and pullup stations. And researchers are currently launching a more robust study with 60 cadets for more statistical power.

Armonda said that the study has additional applications beyond the Army, noting that it can also be beneficial to first responders, many of whom start their careers in the U.S. military.

“Because of the constricted time frame that we have to actually complete these fitness requirements, we think the success of this study can transfer over to law enforcement, wildland firefighters and other federal agencies,” Armonda said…


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