MARINO COUNTY, Fla. — The message coming from the Marion County fire chief is simple:
“We have to do something different,” Chief James Banta told Channel 9 investigative anchor Daralene Jones.
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This story discusses suicide. If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, help is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week by calling or texting 988.
The agency lost two firefighters to suicide in less than a month, laying one to rest just days before the chief agreed to sit down with Jones to help raise awareness about suicide among first responders.
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When we visited Marion County Fire Rescue headquarters it was hosting a class of recruits, likely unaware of scenarios their training could never train them for, the mental toll the job can take over time.
Longtime fire rescue employee, James Lucas knew firefighters Tripp Wooten and Allen Singleton well. He recruited one of them to the department many years ago and lived in the neighborhood where the other was stationed.
“Nonstop energy, like hearing the tones go off no matter for a structure, fire or a medical call. He was just as energetic, you know, hooting and hollering all the way out to the truck,” Lucas recalled.
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Memories are all that’s left for the colleagues and families of the veteran firefighters, who were both married with two young children.
“Anybody who thinks that they have the answer right now, they’re fooling themselves, maybe looking at the easy things,” he said. “That’s really easy to say, well it’s this or that, or it’s drugs, you know. I think it goes a lot deeper than that. And as an agency, a community, as a country, we have to figure out a way to try to solve this, really an epidemic. And we’re really starting to see this nationwide as an epidemic.”
We learned about the deaths of the firefighters just as we were researching a special report about firefighter suicides in Orange and Seminole counties. All three agencies have existing mental health resources.
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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.
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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.
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After the deaths in Marion County, the chief decided what’s in place isn’t enough and brought in a mental health strike team, including outside peer support, clinicians and even canine support, with one goal.
“Blanket the entire department and touch every single person, follow up on a fourth day, and then provide me some information back on some maybe some immediate action items that they see that we can start working on, but also some longer-term goals,” Chief Banta said.
But the chief said it’s also important for the community to know that the department has worked a lot on mental health for several years.
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“We have a peer-support program, we have a chaplain, we have partnerships with other agencies to be able to get people in crisis to help. And we’ve done that in the last two weeks, twice with two employees that were in crisis. And within the same day we’re in front of a crisis counselor and with inpatient therapy same day. But obviously it’s not enough,” Banta said.
Like Orange County, this is now the third suicide for the department in a short amount of time. Marion also experienced a department suicide in 2019. "
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We know there’s going to be occasions when you can’t go home, we know there’s going to be occasions when it causes stressors on you, on your outside environment outside of work, but I also think there’s a tipping point, when we’ve asked too much,” Banta said.
And he doesn’t believe there are easy solutions.
“I think that we must figure out what the right environment is for a first responder to thrive in. Until I think we get to a point where we can balance the right amount of workload, the right amount of pay, the right shift schedules. I think there’s a lot and there’s a lot of things to be answered and it’s not going to come overnight,” he said.
In the meantime, he’s asked each firefighter to look out for each other. And there’s this from James Lucas who knew both men: “In my estimation, it would be talking about it. You know that the days of the bravado and suck it up, buttercup, are no longer prevalent.”
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