For fire­fight­ers, emo­tional stress of­ten dead­li­est of en­e­mies ‘PTSD for Fire­fight­ers is real’

Kuwait Times - - HEALTH & SCIENCE -

Bat­tal­ion Chief David Danger­field’s nick­name was “Su­per Dave,” a moniker the vet­eran fire­fighter had earned over the years for his cheer­ful, get­things-done per­son­al­ity. The leader of a fire de­part­ment dive team in a quiet Florida beach com­mu­nity of 15,000 vol­un­teered for char­i­ties help­ing kids and fam­i­lies and was the 2013 Trea­sure Coast Emer­gency Ser­vice Provider of the Year.

But one Satur­day night last month, Danger­field posted a Face­book mes­sage that re­vealed a world of pain be­hind the brave fa­cade. “PTSD for Fire­fight­ers is real. If your love (sic) one is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing signs get them help quickly. 27 years of deaths and ba­bies dy­ing in your hands is a mem­ory that you will never get rid off (sic) . ... My love to my crews. Be safe, take care. I love you all.”

He then drove to some woods, called 911 and told the dis­patcher where his body could be found. He hung up and fa­tally shot him­self. He was 48. Danger­field’s death shined a light on fire­fight­ers who suf­fer post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der, a prob­lem most of­ten as­so­ci­ated with sol­diers returning from war. Fire­fight­ers are find­ing that their long tra­di­tion of silent sto­icism, and the be­lief that talk­ing about one’s demons is a sign of weak­ness that could iso­late them from col­leagues, has left many of them psy­cho­log­i­cally and emo­tion­ally dam­aged.

30 per­cent suf­fer from PTSD

The Fire­fighter Be­hav­ioral Health Al­liance es­ti­mates about 30 per­cent of the na­tion’s 1.3 mil­lion ca­reer and vol­un­teer fire­fight­ers suf­fer from PTSD, with 132 sui­cides by ac­tive and for­mer U.S. fire­fight­ers and paramedics re­ported last year. Of­fi­cials be­lieve those num­bers are low be­cause of mis­clas­si­fi­ca­tions. Stud­ies show fire­fight­ers are three to four times more likely to kill them­selves than die in on­duty ac­ci­dents. There have been re­cent na­tional ef­forts to train fire­fight­ers to rec­og­nize PTSD and to re­move the stigma of seek­ing help. But even knowl­edge can’t save ev­ery­one. David Danger­field be­came a fire­fighter in the 1980s, ad­vanc­ing through the ranks to a top po­si­tion in the In­dian River Fire Res­cue Divi­sion in Vero Beach, a town of 15,000 known for its quiet beaches, re­tirees and as the Dodgers’ for­mer spring train­ing grounds. Danger­field founded and ran the fire­fight­ers chili cook-off for char­ity.

His team’s work some­times made the lo­cal news. He and a col­league found the sev­ered body of a 9-year-old boy who had been at­tacked by a shark. He and his part­ners pulled man­gled bod­ies from a small plane crash in a re­mote swamp and then sat with the corpses for hours be­fore they could be re­moved. In 2014, Danger­field re­cov­ered the body of a 16-year-old bi­cy­clist who had been knocked off a bridge and into a la­goon by a car.

He told the Vero News that fire­fight­ers feel the fam­i­lies’ pain. “It’s dif­fi­cult for us, too,” he said. “It sticks with you.”

Re­tired fire­fighter Blades Robin­son, a dive team buddy, said Danger­field had some dif­fi­cul­ties over the past cou­ple of years, in­clud­ing a di­vorce, but had been un­der­go­ing PTSD coun­sel­ing. He had been pro­moted last year, bought a new house and truck. He seemed like his nor­mal self. “We were all blind­sided by his death,” Robin­son said.

Scott Geisel­hart, a fire­fighter in Frazee, Min­nesota, fought the same demons Danger­field did - and would have died the same way but for some in­cred­i­ble luck. Geisel­hart was viewed as a pil­lar of his com­mu­nity in Frazee, a town of 1,300 peo­ple tucked among the area’s abun­dant lakes and home to “Big Tom,” the world’s largest turkey statue. He owned the lo­cal auto re­pair shop and was an as­sis­tant chief with the vol­un­teer fire de­part­ment, lead­ing the crew that re­moves peo­ple when they are trapped, par­tic­u­larly af­ter car ac­ci­dents.

Geisel­hart of­ten found him­self res­cu­ing friends and neigh­bors. One night he chat­ted up a bar­tender about a neck­lace she was wear­ing. The next morn­ing he pulled her body from her car’s wreck­age and found the neck­lace in the de­bris.

In 2010, Geisel­hart and his team res­cued a teenager who had driven into an icy swamp. He ap­peared to be re­cov­er­ing in the hospi­tal. “Ev­ery­thing went per­fect: It was an awe­some, awe­some res­cue. It was just wow,” said Geisel­hart, 47. “I was cel­e­brat­ing, say­ing, ‘We fi­nally saved one.’” A month later, the teen died from a lung in­fec­tion caused by in­hal­ing wa­ter. Geisel­hart blamed him­self.

It wasn’t long be­fore the night­mares be­gan, mostly about his two sons. “They would be burn­ing to death or fall­ing out of the sky and land­ing in the wa­ter and turn­ing to me for help and I was par­a­lyzed. I couldn’t help them. Or they would be in a car ac­ci­dent and the jaws of life wouldn’t work or my arms wouldn’t work,” he said. “So I just de­cided I was never go­ing to sleep again.” He started tak­ing meth to stay awake. It made his PTSD worse.

Ev­ery­where he looked in town, some­thing re­minded him of some­one he had seen dead or dy­ing. He be­gan yelling at his girl­friend and kids. He spent 23 hours a day at his re­pair shop, but spent much of his time star­ing at his sur­veil­lance mon­i­tor.

Fi­nally, in 2014, he took his Smith & Wesson .44 Mag­num, loaded it with six bul­lets, put it to his head and pulled the trig­ger. Click. The gun didn’t fire. “I think it was God us­ing my fa­vorite gun to get my at­ten­tion,” he said. Geisel­hart got help. He un­der­went psy­chother­apy, eye­move­ment de­sen­si­ti­za­tion and re­pro­cess­ing, some­times used to treat sol­diers suf­fer­ing from PTSD. It worked. He stopped us­ing meth. He stopped be­ing an­gry, even though he lost his auto shop. He’s still a vol­un­teer fire­fighter. “What’s weird is that I’m in the worst fi­nan­cial shape of my life but I am the hap­pi­est I have ever been be­cause I got my life back and I know there is a fu­ture,” he said. “Some­thing in­side me is at peace.” He now speaks to fire­fight­ers groups, urg­ing them to seek help be­fore it’s too late. “I know how much strength it takes,” he said. “It is far from a weak­ness.”—AP

VERO BEACH, Florida: In this photo taken Mon­day, Oct. 24, 2016, John O’Con­ner talks to a re­porter.—AP

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