Palatine man puts spotlight on firefighters' mental health

 
 
Updated 11/1/2011 6:27 PM
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  • Palatine Rural Fire Protection District Battalion Chief Jeff Dill, founder of the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance, runs a tactical exercise simulating a baby's rescue so counselors can get an idea of what firefighters experience.

    Palatine Rural Fire Protection District Battalion Chief Jeff Dill, founder of the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance, runs a tactical exercise simulating a baby's rescue so counselors can get an idea of what firefighters experience. courtesy of Jeff Dill

  • Palatine Rural Fire Protection District Battalion Chief Jeff Dill formed the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance.

    Palatine Rural Fire Protection District Battalion Chief Jeff Dill formed the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance.

From the rush they feel when alarms go off signaling a structure fire to the camaraderie built over a family style dinners, firefighters have their own culture.

So it's easy to understand the reluctance they may feel about sharing their most intimate thoughts and fears to an outsider.

"A lot of guys want to talk to someone, but they're frustrated because most people don't know anything about our profession," Palatine Rural Fire Protection District Battalion Chief Jeff Dill said. "So they don't talk to anyone."

Dill is out to change that.

In an effort to educate firefighters, emergency medical service personnel and their families about mental health -- and combat what Dill calls an alarming increase in suicides by first responders -- he founded the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance earlier this year.

The Woodstock-based nonprofit organization, in conjunction with the Harper College Department of Fire Science Technology, will hold a workshop entitled "Saving Those Who Save Others" on Friday, Nov. 18, on the community college's Palatine campus.

Dill, a Palatine resident, said the initiative stems from encounters he had with firefighters who helped in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Many were traumatized from having to pull body after bloated body from the water, but didn't know where to turn.

"In our culture, you don't ask for help because it's seen as a sign of weakness," he said.

Dill got his master's degree, became a licensed counselor and started a business aimed at helping his brothers and sisters. His new nonprofit is an effort to further spread his message with the help of grants and charitable sponsorships.

One day, he hopes the alliance can start a weekend camp for families of firefighters who took their own lives.

The four-hour workshop at Harper will feature candid discussions, role-playing scenarios and information about relationships, finances and suicide prevention. A video will be played featuring local fire officials talking about a suicide that occurred in their firehouse. Even firefighters' suicide notes will be dissected.

"We can't sugarcoat what's going on," Dill said.

Comprehensive statistics on suicide rates among firefighters don't exist, but Dill has compiled reports of 140 cases from around the nation by reaching out to fire departments.

Usually, he said, the warning signs were there but behavioral health training wasn't.

Professor Sam Giordano, who spent 35 years as a firefighter and now works as coordinator of Harper's Fire Science and Emergency Management Programs, said one goal of the workshop is to make firefighters aware of psychological and emotional dangers, and provide insight and training on how to prevent them from manifesting into problems such as alcoholism, violence or worse.

He recalls that when he became a firefighter in the mid-1970s, it was considered weak to use a now-standard air pack breathing apparatus because real men were "smoke eaters." He hopes firefighters both new and old will similarly move beyond any stigma associated with behavioral health training.

"You never want to air your dirty laundry, but firefighters need to start saving their own lives," Giordano said.

For more information, visit ffbha.org or call (847) 485-8953.

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