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from Matt Tobia,
We use the word “brotherhood” in the fire ser- vice—a lot. We claim that we are our brother and sister’s keeper, but are we? Break a leg,
we will mow a lawn. Suffer an injury while off duty,
we will provide swaps or cover shifts or donate leave.
Cancer, we will do fundraisers, donate blood, and cook
meals—whatever we can to provide support.
These are all examples of “the brotherhood.” But
what happens when one of our own breaks their soul?
We cannot see the outward evidence of injury and
are therefore suspicious of its legitimacy. Even in our
capacity to look beyond that initial skepticism, we
find ourselves painfully unprepared to engage on this
issue because we simply do not know what to say and
because it reveals the potential for us to fall victim to
the same dreaded affliction (if it can happen to them, it
can happen to me).
ADDRESSING DESPAIR AND DESPERATION
Although my department is as susceptible as any for
suffering a line-of-duty death, we are actually three
times more likely to experience the death of a member
through suicide. And hindsight is always translucent.
Invariably, after the immediate shock has worn off, our
conversations include statements like, “I knew he was
struggling,” “She seemed more distant than usual,” and
“He never did get over that call.” We knew.
Sometimes, suicide does take us by surprise (“I
never in a million years would have thought he would
take his own life—never”), leaving us all the more
lost, struggling to understand when the only person
who can explain the incomprehensible is not around
anymore to answer the question that consumes our
Being our brother’s keeper means doing whatever it
takes—period. We have an obligation to care so much,
to love our fellow responders so much, that we are will-
ing to look our brother or sister in the eye and have a
courageous conversation about what we see. Experts tell
us that suicide is the intersection of three circumstances:
a thwarted sense of belonging (being ostracized or alone),
a perceived burdensomeness, and the capability to
actually end our own life. Often, firefighters, paramed-
ics, and emergency medical technicians lose so much
perspective on life that they come to believe that the only
way to end their pain is through their own death, and
they justify their actions internally by thinking, however
mistakenly, that those around them would be better off
without them. Perception is reality to the person who is
carrying the weight of despair and desperation.
MAKE THE EFFORT
We must ACT1: Ask about intent or ideation, Care
for your brother or sister at risk, and Take them to
professional help. Asking the question, “Are you thinking about hurting yourself?” takes tremendous courage.
Frequently, a member in trouble may realize that he
needs help but cannot bring himself to make the call
himself. He simply cannot pick up the phone. Pick it
up for him. Identify that you are calling for someone
else and then hand the phone over.
If you ask someone if he is willing to seek help and
he says no, SAY SOMETHING. Tell someone else so
they can help. At what point does a brother’s private
life warrant walking away from him when he is in
crisis? Never. We spend more than a third of our lives
with our fellow responders. We are present in each
other’s lives and are more than willing to offer advice
about anything (since we are experts in everything).
Sometimes, the mere fact that we are paying attention
is enough to cause others to reconsider their plan and
come in out of the darkness.
Our words can make a difference, but only if they
are matched with action. First, emphasize how much
we care and are willing to do; second, remind the
person that he has worth, that the world is a better
place because he is in it—right now; third, tell him
that no matter how bad a situation is, there is a
capacity to get beyond it. The road may be hard, but
no one has to travel it alone—not in this family.
Here are resources that can help. National Suicide
Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255),
National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Life Safety
Initiative 13 Web resources: www.everyonegoeshome.
1. Everyone Goes Home, Life Safety Initiative 13, Psychological Support,
Matthew Tobia is an assistant chief with Loudoun County (VA) Fire
and Rescue and is a 29-year veteran of emergency services. He can
be reached at email@example.com.
Come in Out of the Darkness
Confronting suicide through devotion