Firefighters bring national effort to prevent firefighter suicides to Seattle

There is a threat facing firefighters outside of the flames. A growing number of first responders are struggling to cope with the stress of the job.

Incredibly, more firefighters died by suicide last year than died in the line of duty.  There have been at least three firefighter suicides in the Puget Sound region so far this year.   In the last seven years, 26 firefighters across Washington state have taken their lives.

And the crisis seems to be growing.

It was a sad procession through the city of Orting: a solemn escort for the body of Fire Capt. Art Vazquez. The 25-year veteran died, not in the line of duty, but by his own hand, succumbing to the PTSD he battled for years.

It is painfully familiar to the widow of Crystal Murphy.

"I smile and I cry every single time," said Heather Murphy, as she wiped her eyes,  "because that was like the best of her."

The Burien firefighter lost her fight with PTSD when she took her own life Christmas Eve.

This would not have happened," insists Heather Murphy, "if it were not for her job."

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Murphy and Vazquez have joined a sad roll call of firefighters who have ended their suffering by ending their lives.

"The problem appears to be growing," said Kenny Stuart, a 23-year veteran of the Seattle Fire Department.  "I know several firefighters in Seattle who have taken their own lives."

Stuart stood in a meeting room at the Washington Convention Center, the site this week of the national convention of the International Association of Firefighters union, or IAFF.

Stuart says when a firefighter dies by suicide, the impact is felt far and wide.

"I've lost close friends," he said. "The fire department has lost great firefighters. And a family has lost their father, their husband. And the community is really suffering from this."

But experts say the suffering firefighters witness can sometimes overwhelm them, too.

"I don't think everyone is aware of the calls that our men and women go out on, how few of them are actually fires and burning buildings," said Lauren Kosc, a behavioral health specialist for IAFF, "and how many of them are medical calls."

Calls like the massacre at a country music concert in Las Vegas or the deadly school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

"Our paramedics responded to that school shooting, which was a horrific scene," said Kosc. "And they performed just like any other day at work. They do their job efficiently and swiftly. They save lives. And yet when they go home they take that trauma home with them."

So two years ago, IAFF created a peer support program to train firefighters to spot when one of their own needs help.

"We're not training them to be clinicians or therapists," said Kosc. "But we are training them to be a bridge to services that they might need.  The brotherhood that exists in the fire service is just an incredibly tight bond and a very insular community. So while they're not that receptive to getting help from an outside psychologist, clinician, therapist, they are very receptive to talking to each other."

A conversation that could perhaps rescue the rescuer.

It comes too late to help Vazquez.  A public ceremony to honor his life will be held Thursday afternoon in Tacoma.