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.

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.

Prince Harry spoke about mental health to farmers, but it could have been firefighters

Prince Harry has opened up to farmers about his own mental health struggles. “Asking for help was one of the best decisions that I ever made.”

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. From ABC News video.

While on a trip to Australia Prince Harry and Meghan Markle stopped to talk with farmers who are suffering through a severe drought which has led to a cascading series of hardships. In drawing upon his own experience with depression he implored them to find someone to talk to.

His words would have been very appropriate before an audience of wildland firefighters — from January 1, 2015 through November 1, 2017 at least 68 took their own lives.

If you substitute “firefighter” for “farmer” in Prince Harry’s address, it would still be very appropriate.

Help is available for those feeling really depressed or suicidal.

Honor Guard personnel from wildland fire agencies represented at Family Fire Weekend

The annual event commemorates fallen wildland firefighters

Above: Honor Guard representatives at the Family Fire Weekend in Boise last month. USFWS photo.

At this year’s Family Fire Weekend organized by the Wildland Firefighter Foundation, representatives of honor guards from firefighting agencies participated in special ceremonies at the national Wildland Firefighters Monument. The event was held at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise May 19 and 20, 2018.

Honor Guards from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Bureau of Indian affairs, and California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection presented colors to open the event on Saturday. Three bagpipers – traditionally used to honor fallen firefighters and police offers – accompanied the group. Honor guard members then interacted informally with other participants. On Sunday, the interagency honor guard led a procession of families to the Wildland Firefighters Monument and laid flowers on individual markers commemorating deceased members of the wildland fire family.

“This was a good opportunity to honor the fallen, including our Service comrades commemorated at the monument,” said Chris Wilcox, Branch Chief, National Wildlife Refuge System Fire Management headquartered at NIFC.

honor guard fire family weekend boise firefighters
Members of the USFWS Honor Guard at the Wildland Firefighters Monument lay flowers on the commemorative marker for Richard S. Bolt, the first FWS employee to die in the line of duty while fighting a wildland fire. (left to right) Mike Koole, National Bison Range; Bruce Butler. USFWS photo.

In addition to firefighters who were killed in the line of duty, the monument has markers for some fire management employees who died of other causes — for example, Shane del Grosso, the USFWS Mountain-Prairie Region Fire Management Specialist based at Huron South Dakota who died by suicide in 2016.

The suicide rate among wildland firefighters has been described as “astronomical”, so it could be a stretch to assume a suicide is not, at least to a degree, a line of duty death.

Help:

Inadequate sleep can help explain high rates of suicide and cardiac events among firefighters

Studies indicate sleep deprivation increases susceptibility to cancer, cardiac disease, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Firefighters sleep wildfire
USFS photo.

An article by Eric Saylors at Medium.com emphasizes how important sleep is to firefighters.

He reports that one study found men kept awake between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. showed a 70 percent reduction of cancer-fighting immune cells known as “natural killers” after one night. These cells detect and control early signs of cancer. The data in the study indicates that even a modest disturbance of sleep produces a reduction of natural immune responses.

Below are excerpts from Mr. Saylor’s article, which also draws information from several other researchers:

“Lack of quality sleep could explain why cardiac events are common in firefighters, regardless of fitness programs. ”

“Rosaline Cartwright, professor of psychology in neuroscience, explains the mind needs sleep to processes stressful events. Without sleep the brain cannot decouple the memory of tragic events and the physiological response. Essentially, if you can’t sleep on it, you can’t get over it. This explains a new epidemic in the fire service; firefighter suicide.”

“Cartwright’s research suggests the mind needs dreams followed by REM sleep and to process upsetting experiences. In other words, you have to recreate tough experiences in your dreams so your mind can break them down. Without the combination of REM sleep and dreams, memories of traumatic events remain fresh in the person’s mind. As a result, a firefighter who is sleep deprived accumulates traumatic events like a trash can that is never emptied.”

“Contributing to cancer, cardiac events, and PTSD, lack of sleep may be the greatest cause of firefighter deaths.”

Eric Saylors is an instructor, author, pilot, consultant, and 3rd gen firefighter with a Masters degree in security studies from the Naval Post Graduate School.

We lost another firefighter

Pine Valley Creek Bridge
Bridge on Interstate 8 over Pine Creek near Pine Valley, California as seen from an airliner July 11, 2005. Uploaded to Wikipedia by NicksGarage.

On Sunday November 5 we lost another wildland firefighter to the suicide epidemic. After completing his shift that morning at CAL FIRE’s Station 20 in El Cajon, California Captain Ryan Mitchell took his own life at the Interstate 8 Pine Valley bridge in San Diego County near Pine Valley.

“This tragic and unexplainable incident has affected many personnel in the Unit, both those that knew Ryan and those that responded to the incident”, Unit and County Fire Chief Tony Mecham wrote Sunday in a message to the county firefighters. “I am proud of our personnel and the efforts undertaken today under very difficult conditions. I especially want to thank those personnel who spent the day at the scene and accompanied Ryan to the Medical Examiners Office this evening.”

“While we may never know exactly what lead to this tragic event”, Chief Mecham continued,  “what we do know is that mental health issues are real and no one should feel embarrassed or ashamed to ask for help. Circumstances at work and in our personal lives affect our mental health and quality of life. There are many resources available to all of us through Employee Support Services, Employee Assistance Programs and our own personal network.”

On November 4 we wrote about the shocking  number of wildland firefighters who have taken their own lives. According to Nelda St. Clair of the Bureau of Land Management we lost 52 in a two-year period, 2015 to 2016.

Chief Mecham is right. Help is available.

The image below that we posted on Facebook is an abbreviated version of help sources that could be posted on bulletin boards or stuffed into employee mailboxes.

suicide sources for help