Hundreds of people gathered Saturday afternoon at the Nampa Civic Center to celebrate the life of a longtime Boise firefighter, and before the memorial began, Boise Fire Department Chief Dennis Doan saw an opportunity to spread awareness so that similar deaths might be prevented in the future.
Boise firefighter Charlie Ruffing, 53, took his own life last week at Fire Station No. 6 while on duty, Boise Fire Department spokeswoman Char Jackson confirmed with the Statesman. The incident did not happen in front of other firefighters, Doan said.
Ruffing, a Nampa resident, served with the Boise department for 20 years and was named the Idaho Firefighter of the Year in 2008. He is survived by his wife of 33 years, Tonya, five daughters and seven grandchildren.
“Charlie was probably one of the most kind, most gentle, giving, and selfless people I’d ever met,” said Doan, who served as Ruffing’s captain from 2006-2008. After the Oregon Trail Fire, Ruffing started a fundraiser for those who lost their homes and raised more than $110,000, Doan said.
Ruffing had been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Injury, Doan said, but he was unable to specify when. The term PTSI is an important distinction from PTSD, Doan said, because it should not be looked at as a disorder.
Doan said he himself had previously sought help for trauma.
“Last year, more firefighters and police officers killed themselves, took their lives, than died in the line of duty,” Doan said.
Doan said Ruffing had appeared to be doing better in recent weeks. Doan could not pinpoint a specific incident for Ruffing’s PTSI, but he said it was possible his military background and an injury while on the job both contributed. In 2004, Ruffing suffered a serious knee injury when his leg was crushed between a parked car and an ambulance. The injury required 14 surgeries.
“It hurts. It hurts to lose a friend and it hurts to have it happen in this way,” Doan said.
During the service, members of Ruffing’s family, including his sister, Kathy Richardson, addressed PTSI and the struggles associated with it.
“He had demons and he had struggles,” Richardson said. “If you find yourself struggling ... and it seems like there’s no way out, please talk to someone.
“You are our heroes, but you are humans first.”
Doan has long been an advocate for mental health treatment to be covered for first responders and has pushed for proper legislation for 20 years. Last winter, Gov. Brad Little signed a bill into law that makes first responders eligible for workers’ compensation if there is “clear and convincing evidence of a work-related psychological injury,” per the Times-News. Prior to this, workers’ comp was available only to those who suffered physical injuries. The legislation goes into effect July 1 but is not permanent.
Over the past 10 years, a dramatic shift has occurred within the Boise Fire Department in terms of how PTSI is handled. When Doan first started on the job, he said the expectation was to “suck it up.” But once firefighters at the station began seeking treatment and told their success stories, an openness became acceptable.
“They’re not going to get fired, they’re not going to lose their job, there’s not going to be a stigma around them from other firefighters because they have had an issue and needed treatment,” Doan remembered one firefighter sharing.
The fire station has several services available to firefighters, including peer support groups, a psychologist and a psychiatrist. A meeting was called immediately after news of Ruffing’s death, Doan said, and firefighters talked openly about how and what they were feeling. For the next three days, at 8:30 a.m., optional coping meetings were held.
Getting rid of the stigma surrounding mental health trauma is the first step in curing what Doan termed “an epidemic” among first responders.
“As tragic as this is, that I lost my friend, some good has come out of it. Just in this single week, we’ve sat around with 50-100 firefighters in a room, and I’ve watched them break down and I’ve watched them tell their stories,” Doan said. “And it’s helped me heal, too.”