LACEY, Wash. - Advocates for local first responders are pushing for new legislation to protect firefighters who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
It’s something Heather Murphy knows about all too well.
Her wife, Navy veteran and Lacey firefighter Crystal Murphy, took her own life on Christmas Day.
Heather said Crystal had PTSD.
“This would have never happened if it were not for her job and those calls,” Murphy said. “She may have not been on shift, but her mind was always on shift.”
While hundreds of Crystal’s fellow firefighters attended her funeral where she received full honors, Crystal’s death is not considered to have happened in the line of duty.
That means her family will not collect the benefits associated with a line-of-duty death.
Recognizing PTSD as a job-related condition
Only five U.S. states list PTSD as a presumptive occupational condition, meaning that treatment is covered by workers' compensation or, in the event of death, recognized being as job related.
Washington is not one of those five states, but legislation to help protect local firefighters suffering from PTSD is currently on Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk, waiting to be signed.
Meanwhile, firefighter suicides are becoming increasingly more common. Since 2000, there have been 970 firefighter suicides nationwide, according to the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance, located near Chicago. It is the only organization in the country that tracks firefighter suicide statistics.
In 2015, 109 first responders died. Jeff Dill, the founder and CEO of Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance, told KIRO 7 those numbers represent just 40 percent of all firefighter suicides nationwide.
Dill said the fact that PTSD is not considered a presumptive condition in most fire departments across the country means many first responders don’t come forward and ask for help.
“Seven of the last 10 firefighters that have called me said that after they had been diagnosed with PTSD, they were fired,” Dill said. “They’re out of a job before they use up their vacation time, sick time. They just won’t get paid.”
Legislative change is a slow process, but there is a push in Washington state to help firefighters suffering from PTSD before their conditions become too severe for them to work -- or worse, to live.
Seattle's firefighter peer support program
Kim LeRoy is a career Seattle firefighter who felt herself slipping after four of her colleagues were killed in the Mary Pang’s warehouse fire.
Lts. Walter Kilgore and Gregory Shoemaker and firefighters Randall Terlicker and James Brown lost their lives after they ran into the burning warehouse on Jan. 5, 1995.
They died after the floor collapsed and dropped them into the burning basement below.
The fire took hours for firefighters to contain and it took several days to recover the bodies of all the fallen firefighters.
Investigators determined it was arson. Martin Pang, the son of the building’s owner, is currently serving a 35-year sentence after pleading guilty to four counts of manslaughter.
The Seattle Fire Department has never forgotten its fallen four, killed in the deadliest fire for first responders in the city’s history. The tragedy inspired LeRoy to begin building a peer support program in her own department, where firefighters can anonymously go to one of their own, specially trained co-workers to talk about their personal or professional problems without fear of repercussion.
In 2017, LeRoy said, 38 Seattle firefighters trained in peer support had over 2,000 conversations with their co-workers.
“The peer support team and its confidentiality is a trusted commodity with our firefighters,” LeRoy said. “In my heart, I want to believe the peer support team does save lives.”
Building awareness about firefighter PTSD
While many fire departments across Washington state are developing similar peer support programs the Lacey Fire Department where Crystal Murphy worked was not.
Heather believes that if Crystal had been able to join a peer support program, she might have done so.
She said Crystal was found by her own co-workers when she didn’t show up for her shift on Christmas Day.
Heather had to explain what happened to their young daughter and son.
“(Our son) has a journal, and he just wrote in his journal with me sitting there,” Heather said. “He wrote, ‘I don’t know if you know, but my mommy has died. It’s Christmas.’ And it’s all he wrote.”
Heather said some of the most remarkable things about Crystal were her “full-body cackle” and contagious love for life.
“I smile and I cry every single time (I think about her laugh), because that was the best of her. That’s what everyone loved,” Heather said. “How do you not hear that and not want to laugh with her?”
Heather said she is sharing Crystal’s story, because maybe her death will encourage someone else to seek out help.
“I think the message would be: Take care of each other,” said Heather. “Stop hiding behind your egos. Stop trying to figure it out by yourselves, and be real."
If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
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