For a couple of decades, I wrote the Nozzlehead column as a “ghost” writer; the late Jim Page (retired fire chief, fire-based EMS icon, and publisher of FireRescue magazine) felt that it would allow me to say what I want about pretty much anything, without concerns of it being tied to anyone specific.
When Pennwell/Fire Engineering purchased FireRescue (along with JEMS and FirefighterNation.com), Bobby Halton and Erich Roden felt differently and wanted it to be “my” column-and that’s where we are today. I am still permitted (and supported!) to say pretty much what I want and we continue-thanks to you, the readers-to enjoy a pretty popular column providing ideas, advice, thoughts, and opinion.
Every once in a while, an event or action occurs in our fire service that I feel is important to share along with some opinion and advice. This is one of those situations. While we were all at FDIC International 2016, the Internet and news media started to buzz about a missing firefighter. The firefighter was found, and it was reported as a suicide. Unfortunately, more details emerged regarding this already tragic death, reports of how this firefighter may have been treated prior to her taking her own life-allegedly treated by “our own”....
So, how’s your daughter?
Is she at the firehouse?
How’s she being treated?
How’s your son?
How about your spouse?
When we get into the discussions of having “fun” in the firehouse or in the fire “community,” what’s right or wrong may be in the eye of the recipient-and the deliverer. Or the policy. Or the law.
It can get nasty-really nasty-and in this www. world of faceless and gutless Internet trolls, it might harshly cause irreversible harm to the recipient.
Sometimes the recipients ignore it and blow it off. Sometimes it makes them sad. Sometimes they get so embarrassed, hurt, upset, or bullied that they want to die. Literally.
Weak? Strong? Sensitive? Who knows, but the experts say that people can be pushed to a point of no return. If you are one of those “anonymous” insensitive Internet trolls and that’s your intention-congratulations.
FIREFIGHTER NICOLE MITTENDORFF RIP
It looks like the tragic suicide of Fairfax County (VA) Firefighter Nicole Mittendorff has ended up being a story that the national and even international media has latched onto. Personally, I am pretty confident that Fairfax County Fire Chief Richie Bowers, using every possible resource, will leave no stone unturned to determine if there is a connection between her suicide and personnel within his department.
Thirty-one-year-old Firefighter Paramedic Nicole Mittendorff was reported missing on April 13 after she called in sick to work and left home. However, just three days later, her abandoned vehicle was found in a parking lot. A note was found in the vehicle, and the young woman, the wife of a Virginia State Police sergeant, had committed suicide.
Evidence of online bullying has been identified as a factor that may have led to her death. Local “anonymous” Web site users began posting hateful messages directed toward the missing firefighter. She was called every nasty name you can imagine by unknown users in the forum. Other female firefighters were also allegedly targeted in the attack. It is currently unknown if Mittendorff read the comments before her death, but the postings are being investigated by law enforcement and her fire department.
This is some nasty stuff, slamming many aspects of this young woman, this sister firefighter’s life. To be clear, when I say nasty, I want you to think about just how nasty some words can describe a woman. Got it? OK, now get even nastier ... it’s as bad as it gets.
At the very least, this serves as a strong reminder to firefighters, fire officers, chiefs, and commissioners about personnel training, expected/required on- and off-duty behaviors, and clear policy.
Clear policy. What’s the policy? How were we trained on the policy?
Some will say that firehouse behavior is just a fun environment. I get it. However, how we behaved when I started in the ’70s, then the ’80s, ’90s, etc. was a different expectation than it is in 2016-whether we like it or not.
A SIMPLE TEST
Do I miss the good old days? Most of it … absolutely, but what I or anyone “misses” is irrelevant. The fact is that there are expected “human” and “respect” behaviors in 2016, and they make good sense.
Here is a simple test that I use and wish I used years ago. Pretend that your spouse, your mom (your partner, your kid, etc.) is watching you at the firehouse-watching every move, hearing every word, seeing every keyboard stroke. Now go ahead and do what you wanna do.
It’s a good test that generally seems to work and isn’t some outlandish request where we have to radically change how we behave. The way we behave in front of our daughters, our moms, our spouses should be the “always” behavior. Should be.
We shouldn’t have to change radically at all when we are around our kids or our families and then at the firehouse. If we do, we need better hiring processes. Think about how you want your kid treated. Do you have a daughter (sister, niece, granddaughter, mom) on the job? Career? Volunteer? No difference. The test is simple: How do you want her treated when on duty? How do parents expect their daughter or son to be treated at a scene while under your command? During training? In the bunk room? Maybe even online?
But what if you cannot stand or tolerate that person’s behavior? What if you don’t like that person? What if their morality angers you? What if you can’t stand their lifestyle? What if they do things that “deserve” your anonymous response, your bullying? Forget it. There is no justification. None.
But what if they have behavior or lifestyle issues you just can’t stand? If it’s that tough, call the employee assistance program. Someone else’s behavior is for the officers (based on policy and law), their spouse, or karma to deal with. However, hiding behind a keyboard throwing fuel on a fire, or just setting and lighting one where there never was one, is gutless and blatantly cowardly. Bored? Find something else to do. Do a self-behavior check.
WHAT ARE THE FACTS ABOUT SUICIDE?
According to statistics released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the national suicide rate has hit its highest point since 1986. Among middle-age Americans, the gender gap narrowed between men and women who took their own lives.
For 10- to 14-year-old girls, the rate has tripled in the past 15 years. “Despite increased suicide prevention efforts, rates are rising.” The number of suicides in the United States has been on the rise since 1999 in everyone between the ages of 10 and 74, according to that new report by the CDC. Researchers at the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics looked at data on cause of death for Americans 10 and older from 1999 to 2014. They also included information on age and race from death certificates.
In 2014, 13 people out of every 100,000 took their own lives, compared with 10.5 per 100,000 in 1999. The suicide rate increased every year from 1999 to 2014 among both women and men and in every age group except those 75 and older.
As firefighters, we take great pride in helping anyone, no matter what they do, how they live, what they look like, or what lifestyle they have. That cannot ever change, regardless of whether it is someone who calls 911 or one of our own who may not fit our own personal, self-serving definition of “brother” or “sister.”
Rest in peace, Nicole Mittendorff.
Note: For further information on behavioral health and suicide in the fire/EMS service, please reach out to the IAFF, IAFC, NVFC, and NFFF. All of these nonprofit organizations (and certainly many others) have extensive programs and resources focused on firefighter and EMS mental and behavioral health support.