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'It's OK if you need help': Superior firefighters focus on mental health

Superior firefighters know what it's like to lose one of their own. Battalion Chief Erik Sutton died by suicide in April 2018, a few weeks after retiring. Sutton, 46, was a 20-year veteran of the department.

Superior Fire Chief Scott Gordon, left, chats with former battalion chief Erik Sutton while the Superior Fire Department tours the inside of a holding tank at Enbridge in Superior in 2012. Sutton died by suicide in April. (Telegram file)
Superior Fire Chief Scott Gordon, left, chats with former battalion chief Erik Sutton while the Superior Fire Department tours the inside of a holding tank at Enbridge in Superior in 2012. Sutton died by suicide in April. (Telegram file)

Superior firefighters know what it's like to lose one of their own. Battalion Chief Erik Sutton died by suicide in April 2018, a few weeks after retiring. Sutton, 46, was a 20-year veteran of the department.

"That is, as an organization, as an individual, one of the most challenging and difficult things that I've ever been through," said Capt. Lindzi Campbell of the Superior Fire Department.

For firefighters who worked with Sutton for years, it was heartbreaking.

"It's awful that we had to lose Erik and I'm still sad every day," said Suzi Olson, president of Superior Firefighters Local 74. "I still think about him quite a bit. But if one good thing can come out of Erik's passing, it will be that we can help others."

The SPD hosts a two-day peer support training program this week that focuses on the mental and behavioral health issues first responders face.

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"You know, we're just humans," Olson said. "Firefighters, yes, but we're just humans and we see a lot of things that people really shouldn't see ever in their life and we have to see them all the time. So we just want to get through that stigma that it's OK if you need help and it doesn't mean you're broken. It just means that you need a little help."

The training focuses on active listening skills, crisis intervention, suicide awareness and identifying local resources.

"It basically creates kind of a safety network within your own department to help identify people who might be struggling," Campbell said. It equips peers who understand the job with skills to reach out and help.

"It's just a friendly face who knows the service who can help you out, probably more than an actual counselor can," Olson said.

On-the-job help is important because firefighters live together.

"We work 24-hour shifts, so I spend a third of my life at the fire hall with the same core group of firefighters that I work with on a daily basis," said Pete Johnson, president of the Duluth Firefighters Local 101.

The 30 participants are responders from different departments and cities: dispatchers from St. Louis and Douglas counties; Superior police officers; a Gold Cross paramedic; and firefighters from Ashland, Superior, Cloquet, Duluth, Hibbing and Virginia.

"I probably had 45 people interested in taking a 30-person class, so the need is out there," Campbell said.

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The International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) launched the peer training program in 2016 in response to what Campbell called an epidemic.

"I say epidemic because in 2017, we lost more firefighters to suicide than line of duty deaths," she said.

A study by the Ruderman Family Foundation found there were 103 firefighter suicides and 140 police officer suicides in 2017, while 93 firefighters and 129 police officers died in the line of duty.

"We're losing firefighters all over the country to suicide," Johnson said. "Careers are being destroyed from substance abuse or mental health issues that are a lot of times traced back to the stresses of the job."

The study found post-traumatic stress disorder and depression rates among firefighters and police officers were five times higher than the rates within the civilian population.

The peer support training, the first of its kind in the area, wasn't prompted by the loss of Sutton, but it is connected.

"We're definitely having this class because of the loss of our own brother and hoping it will make a difference in other people's lives," Campbell said. "I think we owe that much to Erik."

It offers a chance to shift the culture. Firefighters are traditionally stoic and value strength. But they're also human.

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"Fifty percent of this is changing our mindset and destigmatizing mental and behavioral health when it comes to first responders and the other 50 percent of it is giving folks the training in order to help support each other," Campbell said.

One of the IAFF's initiatives is to stamp out the stigma of mental health, Johnson said.

"That a member who has a bad shoulder is no different than a member who is experiencing a mental health issue or something like that," he said. "It's an injury and if we treat it like we treat any physical injury, we should be able to rehab our people and extend their careers and make them healthy for the rest of their lives instead of just ignoring it and saying we can't physically see how they're hurting so it must not be that bad."

The training is supported by administrators, unions and even local businesses. Essentia Health provided a $3,750 grant and Superior Water, Light and Power donated $1,000 toward the cost of the class.

"I'm so thrilled that we have community partners that see the value in this class and that are willing to help pay for this class," Campbell said. "Without that, this probably would not have happened."

First responder wellness - both physical and mental - is crucial to both the people they protect and their peers.

"As firefighters, we rely on one another to go into a burning building," Olson said. "It might be my life that my firefighter has to save one day. I want to know he or she is in the best possible condition, physically and mentally, to be able to help me or help the general public when it comes to doing our job."

Former Superior battalion chief Erik Sutton, center, talks to his team during a fire in Superior in 2014. (Telegram file)
Former Superior battalion chief Erik Sutton, center, talks to his team during a fire in Superior in 2014. (Telegram file)

Maria Lockwood covers news in Douglas County, Wisconsin, for the Superior Telegram.
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