Trouble in Mind: Behavioral health in the fire service

By Janet A. Wilmoth

For NFPA Journal

KYLE IENN WAS ONE OF THE NEW BREED OF FIRE CHIEFS. A 23-year member of the fire service, he led a progressive volunteer fire department in his hometown of Ralston, Nebraska, a suburb of Omaha. He was active on the state and national level with the Nebraska Fire Chiefs Association and the International Association of Fire Chiefs’ Volunteer Combination Officers Section. He served the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation’s “Everyone Goes Home®” program, an initiative to prevent firefighter line-of-duty deaths and injuries. As founder of the Nebraska Serious Injury & Line of Duty Death Response Team, Ienn was first on the scene to help fire departments with the death of a firefighter.

In a 2010 interview for Omaha.com, when asked what kept him motivated, Ienn replied, “Knowing I have helped someone.”

On the morning of January 31, 2012, just days before his 41st birthday, Ienn’s body was found hanging from a bridge in an Omaha park. A fire department vehicle was parked nearby. Omaha police concluded that Ienn committed suicide. He left behind his wife, who worked as an administrative assistant with the fire department, and three teenaged children, two of whom participated in the fire department’s Explorer program.

The suicide of an active, high-profile chief sent a shock wave through the nation’s fire service. Deaths like Ienn’s, along with “suicide clusters” in recent years involving firefighters in metropolitan fire departments around the country, have focused increased attention on behavioral health problems—alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among them—affecting first responders, primarily firefighters and emergency medical service (EMS) personnel. While empirical data on the problem remains scarce, there are suggestions that behavioral health problems among emergency responders may be widespread; studies have found that as many as 37 percent of firefighters may exhibit symptoms of PTSD. Compounding the problem is a lingering stigma that can make it difficult for emergency responders to acknowledge behavioral issues like depression, whether it’s their own or that of a colleague.

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