A highly experienced fire chief warned his colleagues about the dangers of PTSD on Facebook before turning a gun on himself.
Battalion Chief David Dangerfield spent 27 years dealing with the death and destruction caused by fires and accidents in Vero Beach, Florida.
He became a firefighter in the 1980s and was promoted to the top job, during a distinguished career.
Fire Chief David Dangerfield was suffering from PTSD when he took his own life last month
He posted a tragic message on Facebook shortly before calling 911 and shooting himself
Dangerfield had been suffering Post Traumatic Stress Disorder at the time of his death
But on October 15, the 48-year-old firefighter left a post on Facebook warning about the dangers of PTSD. His next action was to call the emergency services and to inform them where they could find his body.
He then shot himself.
During his years as a firefighter, he regularly made the local news, mainly as a result of tragedy and occasionally due to his charity work.
On one call out, he and a colleague recovered the severed body of a nine-year-old boy who had been attacked by a shark.
Another mission involved attending the scene of a light aircraft crash in a remote swamp. He and his colleagues pulled the mangled bodies from the wreckage and remained with them for four hours until they could be removed.
Hundreds of people attended a memorial service for Dangerfield on October 22 in Vero Beach
In 2014, he recovered the body of a 16-year old cyclist, who had been knocked over the side of a bridge into a lagoon.
At the time, he told Vero News: ‘It’s difficult for us too. It sticks with you.’
Yet, his final Facebook post provided a chilling insight into the horrors he witnessed over his long career.
He wrote: ‘PTSD for Firefighters is real. If your love (sic) one is experiencing signs get them help quickly.
’27 years of deaths and babies dying in your hands is a memory that you will never get rid off (sic). … My love to my crews. Be safe, take care. I love you all.’
A flag at the memorial to fallen fire fighters flew at half-mast during Dangerfield’s memorial service on October 24
Shortly afterwards, he was dead.
Retired firefighter Blades Robinson, a dive team buddy, said Dangerfield had some difficulties over the past couple of years, including a divorce, but had been undergoing PTSD counseling. He had been promoted last year, bought a new house and truck. He seemed like his normal self.
‘We were all blindsided by his death,’ Robinson said.
Dangerfield’s death shined a light on firefighters who suffer post-traumatic stress disorder, a problem most often associated with soldiers returning from war.
Firefighters are finding that their long tradition of silent stoicism, and the belief that talking about one’s demons is a sign of weakness that could isolate them from colleagues, has left many of them psychologically and emotionally damaged.
The Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance estimates about 30 percent of the nation’s 1.3 million career and volunteer firefighters suffer from PTSD, with 132 suicides by active and former US firefighters and paramedics reported last year.
Officials believe those numbers are low because of misclassifications. Studies show firefighters are three to four times more likely to kill themselves than die in on-duty accidents.
There have been recent national efforts to train firefighters to recognize PTSD and to remove the stigma of seeking help.
But even knowledge can’t save everyone.
Scott Geiselhart, a firefighter in Frazee, Minnesota, fought the same demons Dangerfield did — and would have died the same way but for some incredible luck.
Geiselhart was viewed as a pillar of his community in Frazee, a town of 1,300 people tucked among the area’s abundant lakes and home to ‘Big Tom’, the world’s largest turkey statue.
Firefighter Scott Geiselhart of the Frazee Fire Department in Minnesota attempted suicide
Geiselhart began having nightmares about the people he was unable to save during his career
He owned the local auto repair shop and was an assistant chief with the volunteer fire department, leading the crew that removes people when they are trapped, particularly after car accidents.
Geiselhart often found himself rescuing friends and neighbors. One night he chatted up a bartender about a necklace she was wearing. The next morning he pulled her body from her car’s wreckage and found the necklace in the debris.
In 2010, Geiselhart and his team rescued a teenager who had driven into an icy swamp. He appeared to be recovering in the hospital.
‘Everything went perfect: It was an awesome, awesome rescue. It was just wow,’ said Geiselhart, 47.
‘I was celebrating, saying, “We finally saved one.”‘
A month later, the teen died from a lung infection caused by inhaling water. Geiselhart blamed himself.
It wasn’t long before the nightmares began, mostly about his two sons.
‘They would be burning to death or falling out of the sky and landing in the water and turning to me for help and I was paralyzed. I couldn’t help them. Or they would be in a car accident and the jaws of life wouldn’t work or my arms wouldn’t work,’ he said.
‘So I just decided I was never going to sleep again.’
He started taking meth to stay awake. It made his PTSD worse.
It is estimated that 132 serving fire fighters took their own lives last year due to PTSD
Everywhere he looked in town, something reminded him of someone he had seen dead or dying. He began yelling at his girlfriend and kids. He spent 23 hours a day at his repair shop, but spent much of his time staring at his surveillance monitor.
Finally, in 2014, he took his Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum, loaded it with six bullets, put it to his head and pulled the trigger. Click. The gun didn’t fire.
‘I think it was God using my favorite gun to get my attention,’ he said.
Geiselhart got help. He underwent psychotherapy, eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing, sometimes used to treat soldiers suffering from PTSD. It worked.
He stopped using meth. He stopped being angry, even though he lost his auto shop. He’s still a volunteer firefighter.
‘What’s weird is that I’m in the worst financial shape of my life but I am the happiest I have ever been because I got my life back and I know there is a future,’ he said.
‘Something inside me is at peace.’ He now speaks to firefighters groups, urging them to seek help before it’s too late.
‘I know how much strength it takes,’ he said. ‘It is far from a weakness.’
• For confidential help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or click here
• For confidential support on suicide matters in the UK, call the Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90, visit a local Samaritans branch or click here