West Bloomfield Firefighter’s Memory Drives Suicide Prevention Efforts
(Lara Mossa, May 19, 2021)
WEST BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP – A longtime firefighter from West Bloomfield Township died by suicide in 2016. That sparked a multi-prong approach to prevent suicide within the department and surrounding areas.
“It wasn’t something we were expecting to have to respond to within our own ranks,” said Gregory Flynn, who has been the Fire Chief for five years. “We were grieving the death of a coworker, a friend, a fellow firefighter. It’s different when it’s one of your own.”
Lt. Jeff Hiltner had worked for the West Bloomfield Township Fire Department for 25 years and 35 years total in public service before he died. Hiltner had two children and a fiancé. At that point, Flynn started working on ways to honor his death and come up with a campaign to prevent similar tragedies.
First, the fire department expanded the services of the employee assistance program by covering more visits to counselors under the health insurance plan.
Secondly, Flynn created a peer support team that would focus on firefighters helping each other. Founded in 2019, that program has been successful, he said.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, Flynn placed importance on changing the stigma and providing additional education surrounding mental illness and suicide prevention.
“There is no stigma for asking for help as it relates to emotional issues,” he said. “We want to underscore the importance of staying physically healthy, financially healthy and emotionally well throughout your career.”
Along those lines, Flynn launched the Yellow Rose Campaign, an effort among the Michigan Association of Fire Chiefs that encourages firefighters to attend a special interactive presentation about suicide and take a pledge to change the culture.
“We know it’s going to be a long journey, but as we continue to change the attitude of one firefighter at a time, over the years it will change,” he said.
In cooperation with neighboring fire departments, West Bloomfield Township also hosts quarterly educational events that include professional speakers. One of those is 2 the Rescue, which features a retired police officer and a firefighter who talk about stress management, anxiety and suicide. That program is open to firefighters’ spouses and significant others as well. In the West Bloomfield Fire Department, it is a requirement for new hires. Birmingham also participates.
“In our culture here at the fire department, it’s open where the firefighters feel comfortable talking about their problems,” said Paul Wells, the Birmingham Fire Chief who supports the campaign. “We see a lot of bad stuff. We try to talk it out, so you don’t bring it home to your family.”
Wells explained that the stress of the job takes a toll on families emotionally. His department updated policies in 2019 to prevent those problems from escalating. Previously, when there was a tragic incident, the firefighters had to remain on duty. Now, when there is an emotional call under the critical incident stress management code, the firefighters can be moved to a different position to help them handle it, he said.
In addition, the Birmingham Fire Department lets workers take time off to visit counselors, he said.
“You go on these calls and you get post traumatic stress disorder,” he added.
Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, said Mary VanHaute, a trainer and counselor for St. Petersburg College in St. Petersburg, Fla. Since 2006, she has done training, consulting, writing and speaking on suicide nationally to first responders, firefighters, ems workers and law enforcement. Seventy percent of people who die by suicide are white males – a demographic that makes up a good majority of the public service workforce, she said. In the U.S., 48,000 people died by suicide last year and 130 people die every day.
“It’s been a privilege to be up in Michigan,” VanHaute said of the local programs. “Because the fire and EMS family in those professions in Michigan are very receptive, forward thinking, open minded and actually lead the country with the programs like the Yellow Rose Campaign Chief Flynn started.”
The New Mexico Fire Chiefs Association joined the cause and adopted the Yellow Rose Campaign two years ago, Flynn said.
“They understand the issue of emotional health in the fire service,” he said of the participants. “They have a passion for helping break down the stigma.”
For more information on the Yellow Rose campaign, go to https://www.yellowrose.michiefs.com.