Five suicides in 14 months: Raw emotions too much for firefighters

By Laura Mills

Runanga Fire Brigade chief Gavin Gibbens said there had been more suicides in the past 14 months than in his 30 years as a firefighter.  Photo / Wayne Drought
Runanga Fire Brigade chief Gavin Gibbens said there had been more suicides in the past 14 months than in his 30 years as a firefighter. Photo / Wayne Drought

West Coast firefighters say they are unprepared for the raw emotions they encounter dealing with suicides.

It comes after Runanga Fire Brigade volunteers attended five suicides in the past 14 months.

Fire chief Gavin Gibbens said that included two in one street.

He today called for more training for firefighters, who were generally not prepared for the emotions they find when dealing with suicides.

Mr Gibbens said there had been more suicides in the past 14 months than in his 30 years as a firefighter.

"We had two within three weeks -- a suicide, a medical death, then another suicide."

In some cases it was not clear if the people knew each other; they were different ages and different genders.

In late 2013, the Fire Service reached an agreement with St John to attend all life-threatening, cardiac or respiratory arrest emergencies, known as "code purple" calls.

As the brigade was community-minded, the fire volunteers said they would attend, Mr Gibbens said.

Firefighters carried first-aid gear including a defibrillator, and were trained in first-aid.

They may be able to get there first in situations "where seconds count".

But it turned out they had been called to five suicides. He was not aware of any other West Coast brigade attending so many.

"Why Runanga has had such an increase, I don't know."

For now they intended to keep responding to the calls, as he had heard of cases where people trying to commit suicide had been revived, and if they did not attend, "would you want that on your conscience?".

"We are still putting our hand up."

However, he appealed for more training so they would know how best to handle a situation with distraught family and friends, and "intense emotional anguish".

"We are trying to get some sort of assistance through the Fire Service."

In the past six months two suicide support groups have been formed on the West Coast -- one for people who have lost a loved one, and another which offers support online, including suicide prevention.

The West Coast District Health Board was preparing a response today, but noted that a death can only be classified as a suicide after it has been to the coroner.

The board has previously said it is working with other community agencies including the police, Victim Support, Primary Care, Ministry of Social Development and Ministry of Education, and Clinical Advisory Service Aotearoa to implement postvention responses.

The Professional Firefighters Union president Peter Nicolle told RNZ today more training was needed to help prepare them to deal with the situations they find themselves in.

"Especially dealing with the family members and onlookers and understanding how they have to deal with that."

Where to get help:

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
Youth services: (06) 3555 906 (Palmerston North and Levin)
Youthline: 0800 376 633
Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
Samaritans: 0800 726 666 (available 24/7)
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

- Greymouth Star

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