Chicago Firefighter Jermaine Pelt died of smoke inhalation on duty this April. Lt. Jan Tchoryk died a day later of a heart attack while battling a blaze. In August, Lt. Kevin Ward died of injuries he suffered while trapped in the basement of a burning home.
Then, in November, firefighter Andrew Price died after falling four stories in the thick of a blaze.
It’s the first time the Chicago Fire Department has seen four line-of-duty deaths in a single year in a quarter century. The year of tragedy has shaken the city’s thousands of firefighters and is forcing department leaders to find ways to support grieving members.
At Price’s November funeral at Navy Pier, hundreds of firefighters saluted their fallen colleague before his remains were whisked away by the fire engine he once drove.
White handkerchiefs dotted the sea of navy blue uniforms, and tears were shed. But many of the mourners put on brave faces of stoicism.
Firefighter Eric Griswold, 48, even allowed a small smile as he remembered the few times he worked alongside Price.
Griswold said he was still trying to digest the losses of the past year.
“It’s a lot for us,” Griswold said.
When asked how he was coping with the grief, Griswold said he would go back to work and dedicate his efforts to Price and the other fallen members.
“We have a duty, we took an oath,” he said. “And we press on no matter what.”
Fire Department Commissioner Annette Nance-Holt said other firefighters are responding in a similar manner — by re-committing to the job.
Nance-Holt said after Price’s death the department offered workers at Price’s Lincoln Park firehouse the day off, but the offer was largely rejected.
“Most people don’t want to go home,” Nance-Holt said. “[We’re doing] anything we can do to help them. But as a department, how we usually grieve is together.”
Nance-Holt said the department has counselors available to firefighters in need.
But many, like Griswold, won’t seek out the help.
Experts like clinical psychologist Carrie Steiner say that’s concerning. Steiner believes many firefighters need the extra support right now, and she worries the city isn’t doing enough to provide it.
The problem, Steiner said, is that many in the department don’t trust the city-provided counseling. They don’t believe it’s truly confidential. Or they’re worried they’ll be diagnosed with mental health issues that disqualify them from duty.
Steiner is a former police officer who exclusively counsels first responders. When she was with the Chicago Police Department, Steiner said she saw firsthand how many officers were unwilling to accept department-offered help. She believes a similar barrier could prevent some firefighters from getting the help they need.
Steiner also said there is a culture among first responders not to express grief or seek additional help. She is familiar with the stoicism borne by Griswold and others at Price’s funeral.
But “firefighters have tear ducts as well,” Steiner said, and it is paramount they “feel their emotions rather than trying to suppress them.”
Larry Langford, a CFD spokesperson, said the department’s counseling program prioritizes member privacy and that firefighters “are encouraged to seek the services they are most comfortable with.”
Steiner thinks the department should be more proactive and offer its firefighters mandatory training on how to recognize and deal with trauma in the workplace. She wants them to become as familiar with the symptoms of trauma as they are with throwing ladders.
“That way,” Steiner said, “it won’t leak out later when you’re drinking [to cope with the pain] or when you’re on a fire, where all of a sudden you get overwhelmed with emotion.” Emotion that can put their lives, and the lives of their crew members in danger, she said.
“That’s why it’s so important to address the issue now,” Steiner said, because “it’s not normal to have four of your co-workers die.”
Anna Savchenko is a reporter for WBEZ. You can reach her at email@example.com.