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Concern Over Firefighter Suicides Prompts KCFD To Seek Resources, Help

Sirens flash and wail as the 17-ton fire engine barrels down Independence Avenue in Kansas City's Historic Northeast. The four firefighters on board gear up in their flame retardant boots and jackets as they rush to the scene of a call.

“After 25 years I’ve seen just about everything you can image,” says firefighter Dan Utt, shouting over the blaring sirens. “Probably more than I’d like to recall to be honest.”

Utt estimates their station receives three to four assault calls — like this one — a shift, so for him this is just another day on the job. In fact, last year this station responded to around 35,000 calls, some fires but mostly medical emergencies, including everything from shootings to heart attacks.

Firefighters and mental health issues 

It comes as no surprise that firefighters experience a high level of stress and trauma in their line of work, and since 2011, incidences of firefighters committing suicide have begun to surface in cities like Phoenix and Chicago.

Now, many fire departments, along with mental health experts, are working to understand the emotional impact of the work. Specifically focusing on a potential relationship between the work of a firefighter and tendency towards suicidal thoughts.

The Kansas City Fire Department has lost four firefighters to suicide in the last ten years. The most recent was Nico Cruz who died in July. That may not seem like an alarming number but for local firefighter Joe Galetti, these were his colleagues and close friends.

“I know some of my fellow brothers and sisters are struggling on the inside,” he says. “Just from the fact that we've lost a lot to suicide."

A tall man in his late 40s, Galetti wears dark blue KCFD sweatpants with black sandals over his socks. Sitting in the chief's office at Station 23, he openly recounts the gruesome and even tragic things he has witnessed in 21 years as a firefighter. But when it comes to talking about the friends he’s lost, Galetti’s eyes get misty.

“I can’t put myself in their shoes,” says Galetti in his deep booming voice, "the underlying issue that lead up to such a desperate move. Why didn't they reach out? Why didn't they ask for help?”

New resources for suicide prevention 

Richard Gist, the Public Health Psychologist at KCFD, says that while Firefighters tend to share a close camaraderie amongst one another, they are also notorious for being emotionally guarded. That’s why he wanted to develop a tool to encourage firefighters to reach out to one another and talk about their struggles.

Employee services, like professional counseling are already available to city firefighters, but Gist wanted something that could be on hand 24/7. That’s why together with The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, he helped to develop ACT, which stands for Ask Care Take. ACT is a mobile app that teaches firefighters step by step how to help prevent suicide.

Whether looking for help for yourself or another firefighter, ACT brings you to links where you can find information and professional help. The app also includes short videos that use actual firefighters, not actors, to demonstrate how to hold difficult conversations.

There is currently no official system in place to track the national rate of firefighter suicides. But by using the known rate of suicide for white middle-age males, the predominant demographic in the U.S. fire service, The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation estimates firefighters are at least three times more likely to commit suicide than to die in the line of duty.

"You are perhaps more likely to save a man's life through this mechanism," says Gist as he holds up his iPhone. "Than you are to physically pull them out of harm's way."

ACT is due to launch this month and in the coming year Gist hopes to have the app in the hands of firefighters throughout the country.