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NIFC works to combat suicide among wildland firefighters through peer support, but is it enough?

Posted: 10:16 PM, Jul 22, 2019
Updated: 2019-07-23 00:16:48-04

BOISE — Wildfire season is just ramping up across much of the United States, which is a big stressor for wildland firefighters and their families as suicide deaths among wildland firefighters continue to climb.

And while those suicide deaths among wildland firefighters are on the rise, exact numbers aren't available. That’s because the National Interagency Fire Center says they only track deaths that occur while on duty and the majority of suicide deaths happen while off duty.

"We have seen wildland firefighters and people in the wildland fire support community complete suicide in recent years, so we do think it's an issue," said Jessica Gardetto, Spokesperson for NIFC.

How big the issue actually is remains a big question mark, though, as the National Interagency Fire Center doesn't track line of duty deaths.

"Unfortunately when people complete suicide, it's often outside of work hours,” said Gardetto.

But regardless of quantity, a wildland firefighter’s life is more than a number. That's why NIFC has worked to implement programs to help combat those suicide deaths that result from working in an exhausting profession where firefighters can spend two weeks or more, away from family and loved ones. NIFC has implemented the Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) program .

"It's actually a mix of employees who have been trained to support employees when they're experiencing mental health or stressful issues, and then it's also trained mental health professionals," said Gardetto.

But the Federal Wildland Fire Services Association , a group that advocates for federal wildland firefighters, wonders if programs like this are enough.

"As long as the problem continues to exist, obviously the right channels of how to deal with it aren't being found," said Casey Judd, President of the Federal Wildland Fire Services Association.

Aside from working a stressful job away from family, a big problem in the system FWFSA believes needs addressing, is simply the job title of wildland firefighters.

"They're currently classified as forestry technicians. As long as you don't have a firefighting background and the mentality of a firefighter, perhaps you just can't understand what it would mean to these folks to be recognized as such," said Judd.

That’s something FWFSA is working to change always, and just a couple of months ago Senator Daines from Montana reintroduced a Wildland Firefighter Recognition Act, which would require the U.S. Office of Personnel Management to classify these men and women as firefighters.

The reason they are not classified as such is because years ago the feds decided to classify them as forestry technicians when they were trying to utilize other U.S. Forest Service employees to help fight fire as well, so they were given an umbrella name to encompass all U.S. Forest Service employees. But Judd says that was before firefighting became a year-round duty, requiring specialized, dangerous work, and so now he says that name needs to be changed.