FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - David Dangerfield loved being a firefighter. According to his widow, Leslie, he cherished the brotherhood of the Indian River County Fire Rescue Department and the virtue of helping others.
"He was the battalion chief. He was supposed to be perfect; a superman," Dangerfield said.
But she said there was a darkness growing inside him.
"He would exhibit extreme anger over nothing," she said. "It was this huge, downward spiral at home. But at the fire department and in the community, nobody knew anything. He hid it."
On Oct. 15, 2016, Dangerfield put on his class A uniform, went to an old orange grove west of Vero Beach, and fatally shot himself.
First responders like Dangerfield see people on their worst days. They are exposed to repeated trauma.
Multiple studies show that emergency responders are more susceptible to post-traumatic stress disorder because of the nature of the profession.
Fort Lauderdale Fire Rescue recently lost one of its own. James Dale "J.D." Rust was an engineer, a SWAT medic and an integral part of the department. He took his own life in October.
"J.D. was a great firefighter, a great person," said Battalion Chief Mike Salzano.
In March of 2016, a Pompano Beach fire captain took his own life.
The wife of Capt. Richard Sandell said she was pregnant with their child when he fatally shot himself right in front of her.
"It's happening more frequently among firefighters. Not just here, in cities but all across the country," said Fort Lauderdale fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr.
"There's a stigma that we've been trying our hardest to eliminate in the fire service. For many years, it's been taboo to talk about your feelings or to talk about a bad call," Salzano said.
One study found that in 2017, more firefighters died of suicide than in the line of duty. But information is tough to come by because departments haven’t always forthcoming about how their members die.
Florida State University researchers found nearly 50 percent of firefighters reported having suicidal thoughts. Repeated exposure to terrible things can trigger stress.
"You know - an extrication, or, you know - finding a little baby that got ejected out of a car," Kerr said.
Fort Lauderdale Chaplain Ronald Perkins knows about the stressors firefighters face. He was called out to the scene of the Parkland massacre. He said those first responders are still asking for help.
"We're a safe haven, so they can come and tell us anything, and it stays with us," Perkins said.
Mario Gonzalez said he has been a firefighter for 28 years, and the chaplain for the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue department for 10 years.
“We thought it was beneficial for chaplains to be firefighters. We’ve gone through the same and similar things,” Gonzalez said.
He said more first responders are willing to seek help because departments like Miami-Dade Fire Rescue are changing their own cultures to make that happen.
“It’s not the job. It’s the relationship. PTSD and the stuff we encounter is real,” Gonzalez said. “But it’s our relationship with our jobs, our families, it’s how we are living life that’s building that resiliency to be able to deal with stress.”
Many departments in Miami-Dade and Broward counties have created peer support programs and have on-call chaplains like Perkins and Gonzalez.
Statewide, a law that went into effect in October allows first responders suffering from PTSD to collect workers' compensation.
It's a cause for which Leslie Dangerfied had been fighting. Florida CFO and State Fire Marshall Jimmy Patronis said he pushed for it after hearing a personal story about a fallen firefighter from Tampa.
"Steve LaDue took his life in September. And it was a compound effect of where he went to the city of Tampa to file a workers' comp claim for challenging mental health benefits," Patronis said.
But in the process, Patronis said, LaDue was told he was not eligible. Patronis believes the new law will give first responders peace of mind.
"[The law] allows those first responders - those heroes - to get access to help. It tells them that it's OK to say, 'I need assistance,'" he said.
Dangerfield said her husband posted a message on Facebook the day he took his own life, reading in part: "PTSD for firefighters is real ... is a memory that you will never get rid of ... it haunted me daily until now."
"I think that was the bravest thing David ever did; to admit he was struggling with PTSD," Dangerfield said. "It's time for our first responders to help themselves so they can help others."
Firefighters and paramedics can take a mental health self-assessment using the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance’s website. Those struggling with suicidal thoughts can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or the Share the Load Program at 1-888-731-3473.
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