Franklin James Cook

EMS Chief Turns Master’s Studies into Suicide Response Training

In Grief, Intervention, Postvention on January 20, 2009 at 8:27 pm

ORIGINAL COLUMN — In her regular op-ed column in the Denver Post, writer (and former Littleton mayor) Susan Thornton highlights recent studies by Wayne Zygowicz, EMS chief for Littleton Fire Rescue, in which he found a lack of training for emergency medical personnel on responding to the scene of a suicide.

Zygowicz surveyed 190 firefighters and police officers in Littleton, and 125 firefighters in 31 other states. All of the Littleton firefighters who responded said they had been on a suicide call, and 97 percent had responded when the suicidal person died. Sixty-three percent said the experience left them with changes in their sleeping or eating habits and emotions, and almost all remembered details of the suicide long afterward. In addition, one-third had felt personally threatened while on a suicide call.

Survey results for police and firefighters in other states were similar. Nationally, only 3 percent of fire departments reported providing training in dealing with suicide.

Zygowicz did his research while studying for a master’s degree, and he “developed a training program that helps first responders know what to do when they encounter a suicidal person.”

“Talk to the person in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. Show compassion,” he urged firefighters in a recent training session. It may ease the person’s anxiety and begin the healing process. First responders should recognize suicidal warning signs. “Ask if they have access to lethal means at home,” he said.

He also created protocols for his own unit’s firefighters when they respond to a suicide fatality, including “suggested phrases EMS can use to avoid re-traumatizing grieving family members.”

“Families say they remember forever what first responders say and do at the time of a suicide,” he said.

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