KELSO, Wash. (KOIN) — The tragic death of Cowlitz County Battalion Chief Mike Zainfeld has the community’s focus on supporting each other and his wife and teenage boys.
Zainfeld died by suicide Thursday morning. The 41-year-old husband and father was struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder related to his job, said Cowlitz Fire Chief Dave LaFave.
Zainfeld’s death hit the community and the fire service hard, LaFave said.
“We’re a small community,” he told KOIN 6 News. “Certainly for our department, we’re very close and it’s very hard, very hard.”
He went on medical leave in March and was diagnosed with PTSD, LaFave said. Zainfeld was struggling with stress related to both long-term exposure to traumatic events, as well as specific incidents like the Oso Landslide in 2014 when he helped recover bodies.
LaFave said things are different now than when he began in the fire service 36 years ago.
“When I started you had to tough it out. If you didn’t, you were considered weak and you were pressed upon. It was difficult. What we’re seeing now and what I’ve learned, like, from our deputy chief is that’s not the way to go.”
Police, firefighters, family and friends gathered together to travel to the coroner’s office to escort his body to a local funeral home. Firefighters from around the area are helping to cover shifts here during this difficult time. A memorial service for Battalion Chief Zainfeld will be announced in the coming days.
Before they left, LaFave offered a message to first responders and the community.
“The message is: Don’t be so tough that you think you can’t share what your issues are with somebody. There is always somebody that we can find that you can talk to that will help.”
Firefighter suicide is ‘probably under-reported’
Deputy Chief Becky Ribelin helped start the employee assistance program for Cowlitz 2 Fire & Rescue.
“Firefighter suicide is much more prevalent and it’s probably under-reported across the US,” Ribelin told KOIN 6 News. “The last stat I read was like one a week.”
The “injuries” associated with post-traumatic stress, she said, “can be cumulative and they can last for years. It’s not like you lose it. It’s baggage and it goes with you and it only can take one thing, a small thing even, to trigger all those years of baggage.”
The department now encourages people to watch out for each other and talk to them if they think they see an issue, Ribbelin said. “Just bringing it up doesn’t make it taboo.”
They also let people go home and have neighboring fire departments come in to cover some shifts, along with peer support groups with trained firefighters. She also said “the chaplains have been here non-stop” since Zainfeld’s death.
“He was a great guy. He was a joker. He is the guy that would bring levity to any situation,” she said. “He was the first guy who would go help someone else, involved in helping members of his own crew that were struggling with things like this as well.”
“A lot of people struggle with dark periods in their life and it’s important to reach out for help,” said Dr. Jerad Shoemaker, who works in Behavioral Health at PeaceHealth St. John Medical Center.
“You might notice they just do less and less things, that they’re not showing up to events. They’re not talking as much, they’re not laughing as much, they’re not doing well at work, they’re not performing well,” he said.
Other warning signs include not sleeping well, talking about being hopeless, being more depressed, thinking about death.
“A lot of times people don’t know just how serious this is,” Shoemaker said. “Should we call now or should we wait until the morning? I would always say get help now.”
You can also call a crisis line or a doctor for help.
Cowlitz Fire Chief Dave LaFave said it succinctly.
“There’s no room for old school when it comes to this. We need to be looking out for our people and taking care of their health and well being.”
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