In over 15 years working with Gainesville Fire Rescue, Lt. Chad Belger has deployed to fires, trauma calls and accidents. Belger often finds himself on the front lines of tragedies while holding back his feelings.
Until two and a half years ago, they took a toll on him.
“When you go and you do the very best you can, but you still fail. There’s a lot of guilt and shame that’s involved,” Belger said. He recalled the day he responded to two back-to-back child drowning calls.
Belger said he started to take these calls personally, he isolated himself from his peers, and he stopped showing up to work. He hit rock bottom.
“I was at home by myself drinking from the time I woke up in the morning till the time I passed out at night,” Belger said. “I didn’t feel like I had anybody that I could turn to for help.”
Belger, now 41, said he would have committed suicide, had it not been for his spiritual experiences at the time.
“I know that pain. I know that loneliness and hopelessness,” he said. “No one deserves that.”
According to data compiled by the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance, in 2019, there were 11 reports of active and retired firefighters taking their own lives in Florida 12 in 2018.
According to FBHA, 113 Florida firefighters committed suicide since 1952, making Florida second in the country, after Illinois, in terms of firefighter suicides.
With a 55 to 60% reporting rate, FBHA tracked 1,464 losses of firefighters and E.M.S. workers nationwide since 1952.
“My depression was getting deeper for those calls,” said Lt. Jeff Jamison of GFR’s fire station 3, “I thought I would get in trouble with my job… My wife would leave me. So, I started thinking, the only way to escape this is suicide.”
In 2014, Jamison responded to a car accident that killed a two-month-old baby with the exact same birthday as his daughter. He said it didn’t affect him until he attended a social gathering weeks later.
“Someone had said, ‘I can’t wait to walk my daughter down the aisle.’ And in the moment, I broke down crying in front of a bunch of people,” Jamison said.
“It hit me that for the first time of my entire career that I had actually thought, man, it could have been my daughter,” Jamison choked up as he described this feeling.
“Even after you retire, those things still linger in your memory,” said Sen. Ed Hooper, R-Palm Harbor. He said he is still affected by calls to child drownings after 24 years of service with Clearwater’s Fire and Rescue Department.
Jamison filed SB 1586, which was amended into committee bill SB 7012. The bill will establish a First Responders Suicide Deterrence Task Force to recommend changes to reduce the incidence of suicide and attempted suicide. The task force is composed of representatives from first responder organizations like the Florida Professional Firefighters’ Association, Florida Fire Chiefs’ Association and Florida State Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police.
The bill unanimously passed both the House and Senate with minimal questions.
“We want to be a task force made up of people that deal with this every day,” Hooper said. If the bill becomes law, the task force will present its first findings and recommendations to the governor and legislature in July of 2021. The bill is awaiting approval from Gov. DeSantis.
“Shame is a killer,” Belger said, “When I finally, out of desperation, just had to start talking about what was going on with me, is when I was really able to start to heal.”
Last year, Belger founded RecoveryRX, a charity supporting people in recovery from alcohol and drug abuse. Following Hurricane Dorian, he also joined the local search and rescue team on a 72-hour deployment to Abaco Island in the Bahamas to aid recovery.
At the local level, GFR has taken up several measures to minimize the impact of trauma, through peer support counseling and new training programs discussing work-related stress and PTSD with firefighters and new recruits. District chiefs also monitor and offer critical incident debriefing to firefighters and paramedics following challenging calls.
According to the department, the last reported GFR firefighter suicide was in 2010.