Firefighter Suicide: We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know

By: Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

In a recent post on LinkedIn, my fire service colleague, Dena Ali, a battalion chief with the Raleigh (N.C.) Fire Department, wrote the following in response to a female firefighter’s suicide:

In her suicide note, she mentioned the pain she experienced from bullying: “She was bullied by her officer to the point she felt she was out of options, and on her last week of probation, she took her own life. Nicole was married to Daniel, and had a loving, supportive family around her. She shared she was unhappy at work, but never to the degree that would raise concerns. She wrote in her note that she simply didn’t want to burden others with her problems, as well as naming her officer as the cause.”

I am in constant amazement at how we brush this sort of behavior under the rug, despite its lethality. In my opinion, relationships in emergency services have a much greater impact on mental health and can be attributed to far more suicides than the trauma of our jobs.

I have worked in public safety for 20 years and have witnessed a lot of traumas, experienced a lot of loss, but never felt pain more excruciating than the pain of the hatred from people who would call themselves my “brothers and sisters” at my funeral.

Source: Ali, Dena. Post on LinkedIn. March 3, 2023.

My colleague at the Fire Service Psychology Association, Dr. Kristen Wheldon, PsyD, had this to say during an email conversation as I was preparing this post:

The fire service was built on basic assumptions that a firefighter must be strong, courageous, and dare I say “masculine.” If a person fails to meet these made-up standards in any way, they are criticized [Bulling being the extreme form of criticism]. It’s possible it is less about the object of the criticism [the person being bullied] but a rejection on the part of the individual doing the criticism [the bully]. If they accept this person [the one being bullied], then they [the bully] must reject the part of themselves that has adopted these ideologies about what it means to be a firefighter. But to do that, they would have to reject themselves. So, rather than doing that, it is easier to cast out the outlier and make them a social pariah.

Source: K. Wheldon, PsyD (Doctor of Psychology)

We must do better, and one place we need to start is by gaining a true picture of what leads a firefighter to take their own life. We can only gain that true picture by conducting research in the form of psychological autopsies, that is, using the proven tools and methodologies of psychology.

The term psychological autopsy was coined by Edwin Schneidman, who first defined the procedure as “a thorough retrospective investigation of the intention of the decedent.”

To put it simply, a psychological autopsy is the process of determining whether a deceased person has died as the result of a suicide. This process is often the most efficient tool for providing answers and necessary information when a suicide occurs. By analyzing medical records, conducting research, and talking to family and friends, the forensic psychologist attempts to explain why the suicide happened.

Source: Expert Psychological Evaluations. What is a Psychological Autopsy? <Available online>

Learn more about psychological autopsies.

NIOSH conducts a thorough evaluation for every firefighter LODD for the purpose of helping us to understand how and why those deaths happened and they publish reports of their findings with valuable areas for improvement identified. We should start treating firefighter suicides for what they are: A line-of-duty death (LODD). Because unless we start to learn what leads a firefighter to see suicide as their only option, we are going to continue to see it happening.

If we were going to go in that direction, perhaps the terminology “occupational fatality” would be a better fit. In this case [a bullied firefighter’s suicide], the threat to life is the culture rather than a fire. That’s pretty scary stuff. 

Source: K. Wheldon, PsyD (Doctor of Psychology)

Scary stuff for sure, Doc, but not half as scary as the next firefighter contemplating suicide as their only option.

About Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

Battalion Chief (Ret.) Robert Avsec served with the men and women of the Chesterfield County (VA) Fire and EMS Department for 26 years. He’s now using his acquired knowledge, skills, and experiences as a freelance writer for and as the “blogger in chief” for this blog. Chief Avsec makes his home in Cross Lanes, WV. Contact him via e-mail, [email protected].