ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — Firefighters are known for their heroic actions. They are the first to run into a burning building trying to save lives. That is just part of the job. Most fire rescue calls are for medical help, sometimes involving people with traumatic injuries or in distress.
This story contains references to suicide. Help is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week by calling 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.
The stress of the job and the everyday stress of what’s happening in a first responder’s personal life takes a toll. And for several Central Florida firefighters, it led to their deaths.
Within just a few weeks, two Marion County firefighters recently committed suicide. The news of their deaths surfaced as 9 Investigates was already working on a special report about the horrific suicides of three Orange County firefighters within just a few months in 2022.
The Marion County agency is now scrambling to help its firefighters and staff cope with the sudden loss of life within their own agency.
Channel 9 investigative anchor Daralene Jones spent four months going through law enforcement records linked to first responder suicides, including the awful 911 calls for help.
It was last fall when Seminole County dispatchers received a call from a father desperate for help. “Medical, medical, please come fast.” We’re not using his name out of respect for the family who is still grieving the horrific loss of the Orange County firefighter. The father and son were driving on I-4 through Altamonte Springs when the father watched in horror as his son jumped out of the car. He could do nothing to save his son as he suffered traumatic injuries.
Thirteen days earlier, there was another 911 call where you can hear a woman describing the same man walking around outside in their neighborhood. “He’s outside with a machete, swiping it all over the ground.” Records show he was taken in for medical help.
Months before that, a Seminole County firefighter was in distress at his Titusville home. A neighbor rushed to call 911, but it was too late to prevent a murder-suicide, according to law enforcement records.
“I just heard a bunch of gunshots and I looked out the window and there’s a guy laying in the driveway next door, and the windows are all busted out. He’s not moving he’s completely still,” the caller told the 911 dispatcher.
Alexander Vazquez knows what it feels like to have those suicidal thoughts.
“The images that I have in my head from 17 years, it would freak people out. It would devastate them if they knew what we saw, if they knew the decisions we had to make. We’re out there in a public image, but that image is not shown completely because nobody wants to see that,” Vazquez told Jones during a candid interview surrounded by fellow firefighters at his station on the east side.
Vazquez took us on a ride down the road to the scene, which turned out to be one of the triggers for his PTSD. It was a water rescue call that turned deadly. It was the second traumatic water rescue call for the veteran first responder. “They were already mowing, we noticed there were a pair of tire marks that had creeped into the water,” Vazquez recalled.
A landscaper had fallen into this retention pond. “He was found, if you line up where his memorial. That is the memorial. That’s the memorial that the neighborhood set up for them,” Vazquez said.
The retention pond is just a few blocks from the fire station outside of a large subdivision. Losing that patient brought back memories of that first water rescue, where Vazquez told us, he felt like a failure. He relived the day in his dreams, frequently, forcing him to wake up out of sleep in a panic.
“Here’s this young woman. Life ahead of her. But I would say every night for months of having that dream and feeling the guilt, that I failed. And as a person who had already felt in my life as a failure,” Vazquez recalled.
Initially, Orange County Fire Rescue didn’t want to talk about the specific cases of firefighter suicides out of respect for families. But a battalion chief, who sat in on our interview with Alex, said the department after the first suicide realized it couldn’t keep closing the door on this problem.
“Let people know that their guard can be let down and we’re going to go ahead and protect them,” Battalion Chief Anthony Phillips said.
Phillips oversees a safety and wellness team that now includes a full-time behavioral health coordinator, a critical stress management team and an internal mental health hotline.
“Once we find out that someone was involved with a call like that, we put that unit out of service until someone from the behavioral health team can reach out to them and say, ‘Hey, is everybody okay?,’” Phillips told Jones.
There is often a stigma attached to asking for mental health help. Jones asked Vazquez if he believes firefighters in the industry are masking their need for help. “I think there’s an expectation. I think the idea is seeming frail or weak mentally,” Vazquez said.
But it’s not weakness that pushed Alex to the brink. It’s strength that pushed him to seek help; strength to share his story. And strength to take the next step forward, and help pull others back.
“I just wish that people would understand that there’s hope and there are people like myself who I will go to the end of the earth to ensure that you have hope,” Vazquez said.
Marion County identified the two firefighters they lost as Tripp Wooten and Allen Singleton. Wooten was laid to rest last month. Singleton will be laid to rest this weekend. The department posted the following statement on Facebook: “Our department has been shaken to the core and I am at a loss for words. Your leadership team has been engaged with Allen’s family and are caring for their needs. Please take some time over the next couple of days to talk to each other and check on your friends and coworkers. We have reached out to the Florida Fire Chiefs Association to utilize their Mental Health Strike Teams …”
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