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Family seeks change as Henderson firefighter who died by suicide memorialized

Updated December 29, 2022 - 9:07 pm

Clete Dadian was a man who had a lot to live for. He was a longtime firefighter, a husband, a father, a beloved son and a friend to many.

But life as a firefighter has a dark side, with near constant exposure to the kinds of trauma that most people likely go their whole lives without seeing. For Dadian, the struggle to overcome that darkness proved insurmountable, as it unfortunately does for so many first responders.

On Dec. 12, at the age of 59, he took his own life.

On Thursday, Dadian, who had worked for just under 23 years at the Henderson Fire Department, was memorialized as a line-of-duty death in a large celebration of life that had all the traditions and ceremonies, with motorcade and honor guard, that are normally observed when a firefighter is killed in action.

“It was a true honor to be Clete’s wife. He adored, cherished and protected me,” Dadian’s widow, Gina Dadian, said during the ceremony, which took place at Henderson’s Central Christian Church, a megachurch that in recent years has served as the venue for funerals of first responders including that of Metropolitan Police Department officer Truong Thai, who was shot and killed while responding to call in October.

‘You see tragedy every day’

Hundreds, including many uniformed first responders from across Southern Nevada, were in attendance.

“He loved being a firefighter. He loved helping people,” Gina Dadian said. “But Clete also felt the pain and heartache of that person he was trying to help on their very worst day.”

In an interview Wednesday, Henderson Fire Chief Shawn White said Dadian’s death is a line-of-duty death because the on-the-job exposure to trauma contributed to his suicide. Without getting specific out of respect for his family’s privacy, White said Dadian suffered from that turmoil.

“You see tragedy every day, every day all day,” White said. “In Henderson we get about 100 calls a day in our community, and none of those calls are good news.”

Firefighters dying by suicide is a nationwide problem but also something the Henderson Fire Department has endured, White said at the memorial service, calling suicide an “epidemic” in American firefighting.

Since 2019, two active-duty Henderson firefighters and two retired Henderson firefighters have taken their own lives, city of Henderson spokesperson Kathleen Richards confirmed after the memorial. One of those active-duty firefighters, Robbie Pettingill, 35, took his own life in September 2019.

‘More work that we need to do’

Firefighters are 50 percent more likely than the general public to take their own lives, White said.

According to the Ruderman Family Foundation, which advocates for the inclusion in society of people with disabilities, police officers and firefighters are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty. In 2020, according to the foundation, the total reported firefighter and EMS suicides was 127, just slightly higher than the 126 confirmed suicides in 2017.

“This is a fire department that’s worked hard to shine a light on this problem, and bring this conversation out of the backrooms, out of the bars,” White said. “But obviously there’s more work that we need to do; otherwise we wouldn’t be here today.”

Gina Dadian said from the podium that three and a half years ago, her husband struggled with feelings of anxiety, depression and hopelessness and worked with a therapist for three months, making a recovery.

“So what happened on Dec. 12?” Gina Dadian asked. “And when did that darkness sneak back in? And where do we go from here? Something does need to change in the way that we approach mental health within the fire service.”

In Henderson, Richards said the city and department have been “very progressive compared to other departments” in trying to foster an environment in which first responders, who are typically reluctant to speak about the emotional toll of their jobs, can speak about any difficulties they might be facing.

Also, the fact that Henderson designates first responder suicides as deaths in the line of duty is at the forefront of tackling the stigma, she said. White also has been vocal about the mental health challenges faced by firefighters.

Two years ago, Richards said, the city hired a public safety wellness manager, Jeff McClish, whose job is to help both Henderson police and firefighters talk about and work through any personal challenges they might be enduring. There are also peer-to-peer support teams, she said.

‘Something needs to change’

During Thursday’s memorial service, Dadian’s daughter Koral Dadian, who works for the Henderson Fire Department and is married to a Henderson firefighter, said that with the growth of both the city and the department, the focus on people has fallen short.

“Somewhere along the road of more stations, more apparatuses, more equipment, and more promotions, this organization stopped focusing on the most important thing: its own people,” Koral Dadian said. She implored the hundreds in attendance, and said this includes herself, to be better about showing kindness and compassion, and valuing relationships like she said her father did.

“I hope you know it’s not my intention to put anyone down,” Koral Dadian said. “I love this department. It will always hold the most special place in my heart, but something needs to change.”

In a statement, the Henderson Fire Department and Dadian family urged anyone who is feeling anxious, depressed, hopeless or needs to talk to contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which provides free and confidential support for people in distress, at 988 or 988lifeline.org.

Contact Brett Clarkson at bclarkson@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BrettClarkson_ on Twitter.

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