As first responder suicides rise, Florida task force calls for changes in training, help availability

Task force successfully extends timeframe for first responders to be diagnosed with PTSD

The number of first responders committing suicide continues to rise, according to leaders of the first comprehensive statewide task force representing firefighters, EMS, law enforcement, corrections, training and behavioral health services across Florida.

The task force has been meeting for more than a year and is working on its second report to submit to the governor’s office.

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The purpose of the “First Responders Suicide Deterrence Task Force” is to “make recommendations on how to reduce the incidence of suicide and attempted suicide among employed or retired first responders in the state.”

Battalion Chief Mike Salzano of the Fort Lauderdale Fire Department is the chair of the First Responders Suicide Deterrence Task Force. He has lost almost a dozen colleagues to suicide.

“For me personally, I think I’m up to about nine or 10 people who were close to me or friends or colleagues over about the past six to seven years,” Salzano said. “Suicide is more prevalent than actual deaths in the line of duty. So it’s gotten pretty bad.”

Tallahassee lawmakers first called for the task force in 2020, after suicide rates started soaring among first responders.

Nationwide, 186 first responders took their own lives in 2020 and 171 did the same in 2021, including at least four Florida officers.

This year, 26 first responders have committed suicide across the U.S., according to Blue H.E.L.P., which tracks the suicides. There is no official national database that compiles the number of deaths.

“This is 2022, not 1998, when I first came on the job and would suck it up,” Salzano said. “It was ‘Suck it up, do your job, don’t complain.’ We’re past that.”

Salzano calls together the task force once a month to identify weaknesses in wellness and mental health throughout the industry. He also seeks opportunities to improve and then tells Tallahassee what it will take to slow or stop the suicides.

“As a person, you may have a job, you go to work and come back every day,” Salzano said. “But as a police officer, that’s your identity, that’s who you are. Asking for help there’s a fear that might be taken away from you. And for some people that fear is so great that they would rather give it up than have their identity taken away from them.”

Salzano believes part of the solution is embedding training into the fire academy program on not just how to put out fires, but how to recognize depression and seek help.

“A new firefighter that comes on the job, we teach them how to be a firefighter, they get the basics, they get the minimum. We’re trying to teach them to be a better firefighter, a good paramedic,” Salzano said. “But I think this (suicide prevention) has to be part of it. Nobody taught anybody that for a very long time. I think you just had to learn along the way, and I think we lost people and they struggled when there was help out there and they just didn’t know about it. That’s the biggest thing is getting the training early on, changing the curriculum so they’re learning that in minimum standards in the fire academy, in the police academy.”

Tampa Airport Chief of Police Charlie Vazquez, who represents the Florida Police Chief’s Association on the task force, has been fighting for Tallahassee to improve the PTSD law for first responders. The law was first passed in 2018 after News 6 pushed for it.

The law allows first responders to receive worker’s compensation for post-traumatic stress disorder within 52 weeks of the incident that caused it. Vazquez fought for lawmakers to change it to 52 weeks from the diagnosis of PTSD.

“The symptoms don’t always manifest themselves in 52 weeks,” Vazquez said. “You see something, cope with it and then maybe 18 months later, it all comes back.”

Tallahassee lawmakers listened and made the change to the PTSD law, passing the legislation unanimously in both the House and Senate. Currently, the revision is headed to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office for signing.

Vazquez agreed that police officers are not properly taught to care for themselves during training.

“We’re taught from day one how to take care of other people, but self-care isn’t really taught,” Vazquez said. “Police officers don’t talk to our families about it. I can’t come home and tell my wife, ‘Hey, I almost got killed today.’ Not a good conversation to have. You’re stuck and you’re afraid to talk about it with your colleagues because you don’t want to appear weak.”

The first report to the governor’s office made numerous recommendations, including to:

  • Encourage stakeholders at all levels (e.g., department, community and statewide) to promote information and referral services, including the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, to first responders and their families. This includes promotion of mental wellbeing on social media platforms.
  • Explore the feasibility of implementing in-person, onsite visits of referral services to establish relationships and promote availability of resources (i.e. visiting all shifts at fire stations, attending roll call at law enforcement agencies).

The task force will complete its second report this summer and then send that one to the governor’s office for review.

The task force is composed of six voting members, including nominated representatives from the Florida Professional Firefighters Association, the Florida Police Benevolent Association, the Florida State Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, the Florida Sheriffs Association, the Florida Police Chiefs Association, and the Florida Fire Chiefs Association.

Meetings are open to the public and held on the last Tuesday of every month. Zoom links to the meetings can be found here.

About the Author:

Erik von Ancken anchors and reports for WKMG-TV News 6 (CBS) in Orlando and is a two-time Emmy award-winning journalist in the prestigious and coveted "On-Camera Talent" categories for both anchoring and reporting. Erik joined the News 6 News Team in 2003 days after the tragic loss of space shuttle Columbia.