Concerns grow over increasing first responder suicide rates

PITTSBURGH — Paramedic George Redner III started to grow angry and distant after he failed to revive a 2-year-old who had drowned.

But not even his parents saw how deeply his work affected him until he took his life seven years later.

“My son was a classic case of ‘I’m never going to tell anybody; if I tell them, they’ll think I’m weak,’” said Redner’s mother, Jacqui Redner, 48, of Levittown, outside Philadelphia.

Like many first responders dedicated to saving lives, Redner, who was 27, never talked about his struggles, she said.

Her son, who went by “Georgie,” threw himself in front of an Amtrak Acela train the morning of Aug. 1, 2015, at a station near the family’s home.

Suicides among first responders, often driven by emotional strain in a culture that long has discouraged showing weakness, are too common, according to organizations that track the deaths.

Little high-quality data are available on first-responder suicides, but rising awareness has prompted several groups to start looking more closely at the deaths in recent years.

A survey of more than 4,000 first responders found that 6.6 percent had attempted suicide, which is more than 10 times the rate in the general population, according to a 2015 article published in the Journal of Emergency Medical Services.

Friends, family and coworkers reported 132 first-responder suicides nationwide in 2016 to the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance, an Arizona-based nonprofit that promotes better mental health support for first responders. The voluntary reports are some of the only data available on the deaths and likely capture only about 40 percent of them, said Jeff Dill, the organization’s founder and CEO.

Dill said he validated 16 suicides — 10 firefighters and six emergency medical services providers — for the year in Pennsylvania.

First-responder suicides are sometimes compared to those among military veterans, many of whom have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Military veterans deployed from 2001 to 2007 had a 41 percent higher suicide risk than the general population, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

But the first-responder deaths have received less attention, said Ann Marie Farina, director of the Code Green Campaign, a Washington-based nonprofit that tracks suicides and provides an online forum for first responders to share anonymous stories. The group counted 13 suicides in Western Pennsylvania from 2014 to 2016.”We’re still kind of in the stage where a lot of people don’t know or don’t realize that PTSD is a widespread problem among first responders,” Farina said.

First-responder training doesn’t prepare trainees for the mental impact of what they see, said Dill, a former Chicago-area fire chief who started to focus on mental health after seeing the struggles of coworkers who had responded to Hurricane Katrina.

“They never told us all the things we’ll keep in our minds — the images, the brain deprivation, that cultural brainwash of being strong, keep things to yourself, don’t ask for help,” he said.

Georgie Redner started volunteering at a fire company when he was 15, said Jacqui Redner. At 19, he got a job as a full-time firefighter in South Carolina. He called home one day to talk to his father, firefighter George Redner Jr., about a bad call.

He had picked up a 2-year-old girl who had fallen into a pool. He tried to revive her during a trip to an emergency department, but the girl died. Eight hours later, he responded to a drug overdose in which the drug naloxone revived an unconscious addict. He returned home a month later and started questioning his faith.

“He said, ‘You explain to me how God killed a 2-year-old but let a drug addict live,’” Jacqui Redner said.

He changed, she said, reacting with anger to jokes and minor provocations. A fight between his Dalmation, named Lucky, and the family’s German Shepherd led the 6-foot-3, 280-pound man to pick up and throw his smaller brother into a wall, leaving a mark in the plaster. Georgie grabbed Lucky and left, not talking with the family for a month.

“Those instances where stupid things just kind of threw him right over the edge, that’s where we knew,” she said.

His father suggested anger-management classes, but Georgie said he was fine, she said.

Depending on how they process what they see, first responders can develop a sort of “tunnel vision” that makes them feel like they have no other options but to kill themselves, said Sheila Roth, a therapist who counsels first responders in Pittsburgh.

Sensory details from bad experiences can stick with first responders, triggering emotional responses at unexpected times, Roth said. The smell from a backyard grill, for example, could bring to mind a recent call in which someone died. The firefighter might experience emotional swings based on the triggers without even recognizing the changes.

Roth counsels first responders to acknowledge and process those memories, which helps manage them. But social settings don’t always permit first responders to take time to process the emotions, and they can be tamped down or ignored, building up over time. Firefighters then might shut down emotionally or develop what Roth calls compassion fatigue. That can erode a person’s ability to relate to others or communicate, which can in turn worsen their relationships.

Child deaths are the most troubling calls for first responders she talks to, followed by the deaths of co-workers who die in the line of duty, Roth said. Also difficult are calls in which they help someone who reminds them of someone they know, Roth said.

Jeff Dill, who founded Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance in 2011, talks with first responders around the country and said he tells them, “If you don’t think you’ve changed, you’re absolutely wrong.”

He consults fire chiefs, family members and medical reports to try to categorize the suicides. The top category is unknown, he said, followed by marital and family relationships, depression, addiction, mental health and PTSD. He has counted 46 homicide-suicides in which a firefighter killed someone else along with themselves.

Dill founded the alliance after learning that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and other agencies fail to keeps data on the deaths. He collects reports of deaths from as far back as the 1880s and had recorded 978 reports as of Wednesday.

Code Green Campaign was started about three years ago when a group of first responders in Washington decided to repost on social media anonymous stories from first responders about their personal struggles. Posting the stories helped the storytellers circumvent the “macho, tough culture” that Farina, Code Green’s director, said prevents many from talking about personal matters with co-workers.

The original posts blew up on social media, Farina said. The group decided to create a nonprofit, and the organization now posts about three anonymous stories per week on its website, codegreencampaign.com.

“This is a bigger problem than we thought; we weren’t misunderstanding that there was a need for something,” she said.

Each first responder processes his or her experiences differently, said Roth. Some of the most resilient are able to reframe the bad calls, telling themselves that they were there because they had training and skills that might have helped. They are able to learn from their experiences without tormenting themselves with questions about what they could have done differently, she said.

George Redner Jr., 50, Georgie’s father, said that in 32 years as a firefighter, he had been able to compartmentalize his experiences, preserving mental stability. The incidents he struggled with most were the deaths of two coworkers during responses. But after his son’s death, he stopped responding to calls for a year.

Jacqui Redner thinks sleep deprivation from back-to-back shifts, fears that his younger brother might have been on the other end of a heroin overdose call and the pressure of a new job offer might have contributed to her son’s mental condition on the day of his death.

Georgie worked full time as a firefighter at Six Flags Great Adventure while volunteering for Edgely Fire Company and three local rescue squads. Sometimes he volunteered through the nights and went to work in the morning, Jacqui Redner said. He would eat and fall asleep on the couch in her home until he had to return to work, she said.

He was an EMT and had just finished paramedic school. He had received a letter from the Philadelphia Fire Department accepting him as a full-time employee, his dream job.

He was upset about having broken up with his girlfriend and threatening to kill himself the night before Aug. 1. Local fire, police and EMS authorities tracked him down at a bar. They took him to Lower Bucks Hospital, where he had been treated for mental health issues before. Jacqui Redner said the hospital released him, and he talked with several friends during the night.

George Redner Jr. got a call the next morning that his son had killed himself.

“What haunts us to this day is that the train station is so close, you could hear the trains going by slow,” Jacqui Redner said.

She and her husband now spend much of their time fighting the stigma they say kept their son and others like him from asking for help. They say changes are needed to support people who fill critical roles in communities, often in volunteer positions.

“They show up, for little to no money, to take care of you. Why can’t we take care of them?” Jacqui Redner said.

The Journal of Emergency Medical Services survey found that first responders who felt supported and encouraged at work were less likely to contemplate suicide.

Responders who didn’t feel supported wrote things in the survey responses such as, “I asked for help and ended up losing my 22-year career” and “(I) asked for help and was laughed at,” according to the article.

Rep. Frank Farry, R-Langhorne, Bucks County, who is a volunteer firefighter, said he is exploring legislative changes that might be able to help.

Farry said that volunteer firefighters are covered only by workers’ compensation insurance, which doesn’t treat mental health issues as work-related injuries. Some states and countries have changed laws to expand workers’ compensation coverage, he said. Pennsylvania is just starting to look at options, he said.

“I would say that there’s not a system in place to take care of these responders,” Farry said.

A group has set up a help line for them in Bucks County, he said. All the groups involved in first responder suicides agree more education is needed to encourage people to seek help when they need it.

Roth is co-chairwoman of the Change the Culture Committee, a grassroots group that started meeting last year at the Emergency Medical Services Institute in Pittsburgh. The group is preparing to survey first responders about what resources might help prevent suicides.

Pittsburgh EMS Chief Robert Farrow said there have been no suicides in the city squad in the 41 years he has been a part of it, but he said he takes the risk seriously.

“That can change overnight, and that’s what we want to prevent,” Farrow said.

The squad is focused on expanding its peer-support program, based on observations that responders are more likely to open up to one another than to a superior or someone from outside the squad, he said.

The Redners keep three of Georgie’s uniforms in a game room in their home. Posters with photos of him line the walls, given to the family by the squads he worked with.

George Redner Jr. talks with any first responder who calls him at any hour about whatever they are struggling with.

Jacqui Redner said she misses her son every day and is fighting to save other mothers’ children, including working to change state and federal laws.

“These are the people who we call when someone in our family is hurt or dying or having a heart attack,” she said. “These are the people who save us … and we can’t as a country take care of them?”

ad-high_impact_4
News
Ron Jeremy and Heidi Fleiss React to Dennis Hof's Death
Ron Jeremy and Heidi Fleiss speak about their friend and prominent brothel owner Dennis Hof's death at Dennis Hof's Love Ranch. (Benjamin Hager/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Nevada brothel owner Dennis Hof has died
Nevada brothel owner and Republican candidate for Nevada State Assembly District 36, Dennis Hof has died. He was 72. Nye County Sherriff's office confirmed. Hof owned Dennis Hof's Love Ranch brothel, located in Crystal, Nevada.
Las Vegas police investigate suspicious package at shopping center
Las Vegas police evacuated a southeast valley shopping center at Flamingo and Sandhill roads early Tuesday morning while they investigated reports of a suspicious package. (Max Michor/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
The Las Vegas Metro hosts the K-9 Trials
The Las Vegas Metro K-9 Trials returns to the Orleans Arena to benefit the Friends For Las Vegas Police K-9 group.
Kingman residents love their little town
Residents of Kingman, Ariz. talk about how they ended up living in the Route 66 town, and what they love about their quiet community. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Service at Southern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery
Twelve unclaimed veterans are honored at Southern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Boulder City in Oct. 9, 2018. (Briana Erickson/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas house prices reach highest level in 11 years
Las Vegas house prices are rising But so is the amount of available homes on the market Still, properties priced below $300,000 are selling fast And September was the first time since June 2007 that the median house price reached the $300,000 mark Las Vegas home prices have been rising at one of the fastest rates in the country over the past year Recent data show the market is now less affordable than the national average
National Night Out
About 100 Summerlin residents gathered at Park Centre Dr. in Summerlin on Tuesday for National Night Out. Lt. Joshua Bitsko with Las Vegas Metro, played with 3-year-old David who was dressed as a police officer. Face painting, fire truck tours and more kept kids busy as parents roamed behind them. (Mia Sims/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Rural homeless issue comes to a head in Pahrump
On Sept. 12, Pahrump sheriff deputies told residents of a homeless encampment on private property that they had 15 minutes to vacate and grab their belongings. That decision might face some legal consequences. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Remembrance blood drive on October 1
A blood drive was held at the Las Vegas Convention Center on the one year anniversary of the Oct. 1 shooting. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Remembrance Lights memorial unveiled at St. Rose hospital
A dedication ceremony was held at St. Rose to unveil a memorial and to read the names of those who died on October 1, a year ago. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
1October Blood Drive Remembrance Wall
(Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
1October Blood Drive
Vitalent hosts a blood drive at the Las Vegas Convention Center on Monday, Oct. 1, 2018, the first anniversary of the Las Vegas shootings. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
1October sunrise remembrance ceremony in Las Vegas
Myanda Smith, sister of Las Vegas shooting victim Neysa Tonks, speaks at the sunrise remembrance ceremony at the Clark County Government Center in downtown Las Vegas, Monday, Oct. 1, 2018. (Chitose Suzuki/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
‪Gov. Brian Sandoval speaks to crowd at Oct. 1 sunrise remembrance ceremony ‬
‪Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval speaks to the crowd at the Oct. 1 sunrise remembrance ceremony ‬at the Clark County Government Center in downtown Las Vegas, Monday, Oct. 1, 2018. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Father of Route 91 Harvest festival shooting victim talks about college scholarship in his daughter's memory
Chris Davis, father of a Route 91 Harvest festival shooting victim, Neysa Tonks, talks about a college scholarship in his daughter's memory to assist the children of those who died in the shooting. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Oct. 1 survivor Malinda Baldridge talks about life after the shooting
Malinda Baldridge of Reno attended the Route 91 Harvest festival with her daughter, Breanna, 17, and was shot twice in the leg when the gunman fired on the crowd.
Route 91 survivor talks about lack of progress in gun legislation
Heather Gooze, a Route 91 survivor, talks about lack of progress in gun legislation since the Oct 1. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas/Review-Journal) @reviewjournal
Review held in death of man after encounter with Las Vegas police
The mother of Tashii Brown, who died after an encounter with Las Vegas police on the Strip, not satisfied after public review of evidence. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Clark County Museum opening "How We Mourned: Selected Artifacts from the October 1 Memorials"
The Clark County Museum is opening an exhibit "How We Mourned: Selected Artifacts from the October 1 Memorials" of items left to honor the victims killed in the Route 91 Harvest festival shooting. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Memorial service for former RJ lawyer Mark Hinueber
Mark Hinueber, the Review-Journal's former lawyer and defender of the First Amendment, died in Las Vegas on Aug. 23. Hinueber, who was 66, worked at the RJ and other newspapers for 42 years. On Saturday, his friends and family gathered for a memorial service.
Army veteran honored in Henderson event
Army Sgt. Adam Poppenhouse was honored by fellow veterans in an event hosted by a One Hero at a Time at the Henderson Events Center.
Michelle Obama and Keegan-Michael Key urge Nevadans to vote
Former first lady Michelle Obama and comedian Keegan-Michael Key urged Nevadans to vote at Chaparral High School in Las Vegas Sunday, Sep. 23, 2018. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @marcusvillagran
Nevada Task Force One Cheers Golden Knights
Nevada Task Force One Cheers Golden Knights
1 dead, 1 wounded in North Las Vegas standoff
A woman was hospitalized with serious injuries on Thursday morning after being shot inside a North Las Vegas house. Police responded about 11 p.m. to a shooting at a home on the 5600 block of Tropic Breeze Street, near Ann Road and Bruce Street. The wounded woman, police believe, was shot by a man, who later barricaded himself inside the house. SWAT was called to assist, and when officers entered the house, they discovered the man dead from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Las Vegas Teen Makes Clothing Resale His Side Hustle
Las Vegas resident Reanu Elises, 18, started buying and selling streetwear online when he was a high school junior. Like many other young adults, the world of online resale applications like Depop and Mercari have made selling clothing online for a profit easy. Now, Elises spends his free time at thrift shops looking for rare and vintage clothing he can list on his on his shop. Now in his freshman year at UNLV as a business marketing major, Elises hopes to open a shop of his own one day and start his own clothing brand. He estimates that he's made about $1000 from just thrifted finds in the past year, which he'll use to buy more thrift clothing and help pay for expenses in college. (Madelyn Reese/ Las Vegas Review-Journal) @MadelynGReese
Fruition Vineyards Encourages Young Entrepreneurs to "Buy, Flip, Dream"
Once a month, young adults gather at Fruition Vineyards on South Maryland Parkway near UNLV to dig through a stack of rare, vintage and designer clothing that's marked down well below it's resale value. Shop founder Valerie Julian began the vent, dubbed "Fruition Vineyards" in August after running her streetwear shop since 2005. The event gives young entrepreneurs the opportunity to "buy, flip, dream" according to Jean. Meaning that they're encouraged to buy the clothing for sale and find a way to resell it for a profit, then reinvest that into whatever dream they pursue: college, a hobby or their own resale business. Shoppers lined up starting an hour before noon on the last Saturday in April for the opportunity and spoke about what they hoped to do with their finds and profits. (Madelyn Reese/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @MadelynGReese
Local man goes under cover searching for answers to homelessness
Licensed mental health therapist Sheldon Jacobs spent 48 hours under cover posing as a homeless man in an attempt to gain perspective on the complex issue.
Social Work UNLV Lecturer's Calling
Ivet Aldaba-Valera was the first person in her family to graduate from both high school and college. The 33-year-old UNLV lecturer is now pursuing her Ph. D in public policy at the school and has used her degree in social work to engage with the young Latino and Latina community of Las Vegas. (Madelyn Reese/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @MadelynGReese
Gold Point townsperson talks about why he choose to live in a ghost town
Gold Point townsperson Walt Kremin talks about the ghost town in Nevada he calls home. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @marcusvillagran
TOP NEWS
News Headlines
Add Event
Home Front Page Footer Listing
Circular
You May Like

You May Like