Dallas Fire-Rescue (DFR) has been grappling with the tragic loss of four firefighters to suicide since 2018, with two others attempting suicide. To address the mental health challenges faced by its firefighters, DFR implemented a comprehensive mental health wellness program over a year ago. While evaluating the program’s effectiveness is challenging, available data suggests that it has achieved some positive outcomes. However, the combination of long shifts and a vacancy rate of approximately 100 positions within the department increases the strain and stress on firefighters.
According to CBS, the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation has recently started documenting firefighter suicides. This year alone, there have been eight recorded suicides across the country, with Texas leading the list at three. The foundation estimates that between 100 to 200 firefighters die by suicide annually.
The mental health wellness program at DFR employs various strategies to support firefighters and their families in need. These include counseling, intervention, therapy, and other treatment programs. Additionally, a peer support group consisting of 56 trained individuals is available to assist firefighters after traumatic or stressful incidents. All these initiatives fall under the umbrella of the DFR Care Network, established slightly over a year ago.
DFR spokesperson Susana Solis acknowledges the challenge of quantifying the network’s success. However, department members have expressed a sense of reassurance knowing that such services are available. In the past seven months, the peer support team has received approximately 250 contacts, with 180 of those calls resulting in referrals to professionals. Solis affirms that while morale remains a challenge within the department, conversations surrounding behavioral health are becoming more frequent and positive.
To further support the mental health of its personnel, the Dallas Fire Fighters Association provides three months of free counseling. Moreover, the City of Dallas offers paid mental health leave for employees, including those at DFR. A resiliency coordinator and chaplaincy program are also accessible to individuals in need at DFR.
Jim McDade, president of the Dallas Fire Fighters Association, acknowledges the numerous factors that can impact the mental well-being of firefighters and paramedics at DFR. These factors range from the stressors encountered on emergency calls to the demanding work schedules. While McDade believes that the DFR Care Network has assisted many individuals, he believes more can be done to ease the lives of firefighters and paramedics within the department.
Over the years, the necessity for mental health services at DFR has become increasingly apparent. Multiple suicides have occurred within the department in the last decade. Additionally, some employees have faced challenges outside of work, such as DUI offenses. McDade recalls the devastating loss of DFR Capt. Kenny Crutcher to suicide in 2021, which reignited the push for improved mental health services within the department.
In the aftermath of Crutcher’s death, McDade voiced his concerns to DFR Chief Dominique Artis about the potential for a “contagious” effect. Tragically, another member of the department died by suicide just a few weeks later. To enhance awareness of available resources for those struggling with mental health, the department enlisted around 60 volunteers from the International Association of Fire Fighters. These volunteers visited every DFR fire station within a three-day period.
Although the Dallas Fire Fighters Association commenced counseling services for its members during this time, the department continues to face challenges. Within a year, there was another suicide and two additional suicide attempts. Consequently, the department has employed a psychologist, with plans to hire two more.
One of the main challenges faced by DFR is that many new hires come from a military background, often having experienced PTSD. McDade acknowledges the difficulty in fully comprehending the experiences of these individuals, as he and others in the department may not have undergone similar ordeals. Nonetheless, McDade emphasizes the crucial importance of ensuring that every member of the department is aware of the availability of mental health resources. Some individuals have credited these services with saving their lives. Nevertheless, he recognizes that there is more work to be done.
McDade laments the department’s failures in prioritizing mental health. Despite the department’s professed commitment to mental health, McDade highlights the discrepancy between rhetoric and action. He criticizes the current understaffing issues and the enforcement of daily work schedules, which he asserts are detrimental to the overall well-being of firefighters and paramedics. McDade insists that addressing these issues is essential, as mental health struggles within the department are preventable.
In summary, Dallas Fire-Rescue has implemented a mental health wellness program to address the alarming rate of firefighter suicides and suicide attempts. While difficult to gauge its exact effectiveness, the program has displayed positive signs of progress. However, the department faces challenges due to long hours and a significant number of vacancies. To support their personnel, DFR offers counseling services, a peer support group, and access to a resiliency coordinator and chaplaincy program. These efforts represent an important step towards prioritizing the mental health of firefighters and paramedics at DFR. Despite these initiatives, more work needs to be done to address the underlying issues and create a healthier work environment for all members of the department.