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FINDING HOPE: Boise Fire Department coping with suicide death, fighting stigma of mental illness

Posted: 4:08 PM, Jun 24, 2019
Updated: 2019-06-25 18:54:27-04

BOISE, Idaho — Tuesday, May 21 is a day most Boise firefighters will never forget. Early that morning, firefighters at Station #6 discovered Senior Firefighter Charlie Ruffing died by suicide while working overnight.

It was known within the department Ruffing was facing struggles with his mental health. He was undergoing counseling to deal with post traumatic stress injuries as a result of incidents witnessed on the job over the course of his 20 year career.

A recent bill - passed this legislative session - will soon allow those working on the front lines in Idaho to file for workers compensation to cover the cost of treating psychological injuries incurred while on the job, but Boise Fire is doing even more to make sure this never happens again on their watch.

The news is still hard to swallow for Chief Dennis Doan, who got that dreaded phone call that Tuesday morning before 6:30 a.m.

"Right after they've finished recruit academy, I look their families in the eye and say, 'Their safety is my number one priority,' and I let them down," Chief Doan said. "Not only was he a member of our family, but he was a friend."

On the same day Ruffing died by suicide, more than 200 active and retired Treasure Valley firefighters got together to talk it out. Chief Doan lead the therapy session, encouraging others to share what they were feeling.

"It went a few hours while people were talking about what they're going through," Doan said. "There was anger, there was sadness there was a lot of emotions displayed in that first meeting."

But Chief Doan says this tragedy has sparked a new bond. In this case, firefighters in these group settings are leaning on one another, opening up about treatment they've sought to heal personal and professional scars, showing others it's okay to ask for help.

"New firefighters saw veteran firefighters break down, and they talked about their feelings and how they were feeling that day, and really that has changed the stigma around it," Doan explained. "Other firefighters are seeing it's okay to seek treatment, that it's okay to not be okay."

That's where Lisa Johnson steps in, working closely with first responders for 20 years, and now the go-to counselor for many departments across the valley seeking help with what's called "post traumatic stress injuries".

"They don't just go to one traumatic call, they go to thousands of traumatic calls, and it's things we can't even imagine," Johnson explained. "It's like having a backpack and throwing a pebble into that backpack and then all of a sudden that backpack is really heavy with a lot of traumatic incidents that they see, experience and witness."

And constantly responding to people's worst day can tear down even the toughest first responder.

"It overwhelms these usually very hardy, very resilient, extremely gritty people - it overwhelms their ability to cope," Johnson explained. "And that looks like forms of flashbacks, it looks like intrusive thoughts, it looks like avoidance of going back to the scene."

Those flashbacks and memories are part of the job for everyone, including the man in charge.

"I have sought help in my career more than once. I still have flashbacks for calls I've been on, and as I drive around town I see calls everywhere I go in my mind," Chief Doan said. "In those initial stages, we call them tailboard talks. When we get done with a call we go to the tailboard or the kitchen table and we talk about what we saw, how we felt, and just going through that with somebody else who was there and on scene can really relieve a lot of the pressure."

But both Johnson and Chief Doan emphasize that PTSI is a treatable condition, especially if caught quickly. So in an effort to help firefighters get into counseling quickly, the department is implementing a new step for new recruits involving their families in the process.

"We're going to have a spousal academy afterwards, so when we hire new firefighters, their spouses and their significant others are going to come to some training so they can recognize things that are happening at home," Chief Doan said. "Looking for warning signs."

On top of additional group meetings in the future, Boise Fire has been utilizing their Peer Support Group, ensuring Charlie's brothers at Station #6 -- and all others in the department -- have an outlet to open up in a way they'll feel most comfortable.

The joint Peer Support Group, shared among Boise Fire and Boise Police is comprised of trained firefighters and police officers who can talk one-on-one with first responders after an emotional incident.

"We've had our Peer Support Group tied in with all those firefighters that were there that day, and continually checking up on them and making sure that they're getting the help that they need as they move through this," Chief Doan said. "And they know that's like talking to family, that's one of their family members who knows what they're going through."

Chief Doan will soon be traveling to Montana and Indiana to talk with leaders there about the recent legislation that passed in Idaho regarding workers compensation for PTSI.

A reminder if you need help or are contemplating suicide: please call the Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1(800)273-8255.

The U.S. Forest Service also offers resources for wildland and structural firefighters facing suicidal thoughts. Click here to download informational fact sheets and view the suicide awareness tool box.