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Summit on Fire Prevention and Control

National Roundtable Testimony: Behavioral Health, Elevation of the Fire Service in Federal Policy Development

Chief Ernie Mitchell, National Fallen Firefighters Foundation and former U.S. Fire Administrator

As my esteemed colleagues have discussed, preventing and mitigating fires is crucial to protecting the lives of citizens, and protecting firefighters from a toxic environment is vital.

Today, I want to share another issue affecting families and fire departments across the country: the increased number of firefighters dying by suicide and suffering from behavioral health issues. It is our position that we need to provide behavioral health resources and suicide prevention initiatives for all firefighters.

According to organizations tracking the issue, the number of firefighter suicides is estimated to be at least 100 per year. Additionally, the “Ruderman White Paper on Mental Health and Suicide of First Responders” noted that the suicide rate for firefighters is 18 per 100,000 compared to 13 per 100,000 for the general public.

We are responsible for protecting those who protect us by investing in their mental health, including collecting accurate data.

According to evidence-based research, behavioral health awareness campaigns provide effective intervention methods. It is our collective responsibility to provide those who serve with the tools they need to help themselves and each other.

The fire service, as well as our brothers and sisters in blue, are both dealing with occupational-related behavioral health issues. The FBI launched the Law Enforcement Suicide Data Collection on Jan. 1, 2022, to help improve understanding and prevent suicide among law enforcement officers. We applaud this effort and see this data collection as a model of what is needed in the fire service.

Federal agencies have poured millions of dollars into addressing the suicide problem for our colleagues in blue, but there is no comparable effort for the fire service. As policies and programs are developed by federal agencies on first responder behavioral health and other topics, it is time to involve the fire service in federal policy development on an equal basis with law enforcement.

Nearly every Cabinet-level department in the federal government plays a role in addressing the fire problem in America. Each has programs to address fire safety issues in keeping with its specific mission. Our Fire Administration must be elevated to adequately represent the more than 1.1 million firefighters serving in this country.

Where relevant issues touch law enforcement, emergency medical services (EMS), and the fire service, it is essential that the federal government gives equitable consideration to each discipline.

Initiatives addressing sustainable infrastructure, resiliency in the built environment, or public health initiatives cannot operate in silos. Public safety must be approached holistically, which requires equal support to all first responders — the fire service, EMS providers and law enforcement.