OAKLAND, Calif. (KTVU) - When it comes to structure firefighters, we know a lot about first responders. In a 2015 study of 4,000 first responders, the Journal of Emergency Medical Services reported that 37% had contemplated suicide and almost 7% had attempted it, resulting in 143 firefighter suicides that year; far fewer that had died in the line of duty.
However, wildland firefighter suicides remain mostly a mystery because we have very little data on this sensitive subject.
"We have seen, in recent years, some suicides in the wildland firefighter community," said Jessica Gardetto of the National Interagency Fire Center.
This year, the Federal National Interagency Fire Center, took action to collect that data and improve services to full-time and seasonal firefighters.
"We created a Mental Health Committee that looks at how we can reach wildland firefighters before they get to the point where they are contemplating suicide, or they are having suicidal thoughts," said Ms. Gardetto.
For firefighters, coming home from a brutal, exhausting fire season, it can be very much like coming home from a combat zone.
"These wildland firefighting positions are very intense. They work long hours. They're with their crew all summer long. They sometimes can experience stressful, very intense events. Then, all of a sudden they're laid off, and sometimes in certain instances, they can be isolated," said Gardetto, a former wildland firefighter.
Cal Fire is no less concerned.
"The suicide ideation or the completion of suicide is a very large concern to us," said Cal Fire Assistant Chief Mike Ming.
Cal Fire says the new, unprecedented levels of intense firefighting in California can lead to not just PTSD, but real brain damage. "We call it PTSI, a Post Trauma Stress Injury, because it is literally a scientific, physiological, neurological injury to our hippocampus actually. So when we are doing these deployments, we are constantly in fight or flight, so that can wreak havoc on our systems," said Assistant Chief Ming.
The goal: "Provide help and assistance quickly and make sure that assistance is available anywhere, even in remote locations on the fire line," said Gardetto.
There is counseling and treatment available, during and after incidents to avoid a lonely dive into self-destructive behavior including addiction, alcoholism and suicide. But, these life savers tend not to reach out for personal help. "We also produced a guide for firefighters and their families," said Gardetto.
This is all a far cry from even a few years ago. "The culture was: you know, this is what we do and you just need to suck it up. And so, there's been a stigma associated, and we're breaking through that right now," said Assistant Chief Ming. Now, a stigma no more.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255