Flint, MI– The death of a beloved Flint firefighter prompted the chief to call on the community to support the mental health of first responders.
During a city council meeting on April 20, Fire Chief Raymond Barton spoke to council about the recent death of John Stenger, a 50-year-old Flint native who worked for the department for decades.
Barton described Stenger as someone who deeply cared about everything and everyone. He was sometimes referred to as the mayor of Frost Street, because he took such good care of his neighbors. He paid for dumpsters to be put in neighborhoods for cleanups, and although on the outside he may have acted tough, he was full of love and pride for his city.
“The dude loved Flint with all his heart. He would talk about it and he was proud of it. He would talk about Frost Street like it was a million-dollar neighborhood,” Barton said.
But on April 16, Stenger committed suicide, Barton told the council.
“Our firefighter lost his life to suicide. And it’s something that attention has got to be brought to it,” Barton said. “Because right now, in fire and police and public safety around the country, we’re losing more firefighters and police to suicide than we are to line-of-duty deaths.”
According to a study commissioned by the Ruderman Family Foundation, there were at least 103 firefighter suicides and 140 police officer suicides across the country in 2017. Those numbers are roughly 10% and 8.5% higher than line-of-duty deaths in the same year, with 93 firefighters and 129 police officer line of duty deaths.
A recent blog post from the Center for Disease Control explained that first responders “may be at elevated risk for suicide because of the environments in which they work, their culture, and stress, both occupational and personal.”
Barton pointed out the stress Stenger and other firefighters are under. He said that about a month ago, his firefighters responded to two infant deaths on one day.
“So they go through that trauma, and they get past it. Then a week, ten days later, the same crew has another infant death,” Barton said.
Barton said there is a big push to begin recognizing suicide as a line-of-duty death because of how much stress and trauma first responders experience.
“We see so much. We have to respond to these deaths. The police respond to the shootings,” Barton said. “And then everything gets too much to bear, and then we have outside personal things.”
Councilwoman Judy Priestley said she would be praying for the department.
“I can’t imagine finding a baby dead. I had a hard time when I lost a newborn puppy,” Priestley said. “I can’t imagine it. So you definitely have my prayers and my support.”
Councilman Eric Mays also said he would be praying for Stenger’s family, the department, and the community.
“Let’s lean on each other because you got some terrible people out here. The people will put pressure on you, the job will put pressure on you, and then you have family instances, and so I appreciate you telling this city … that it was suicide,” Mays said.
Councilwoman Ladel Lewis said she just hosted a community meeting in the second ward, and part of the discussion was about mental health and seeking help.
“It’s a very tough job. Going to homes, like just seeing infants, just seeing people at their worst, and they’re dependent on you to make it better,” Lewis said. “You know, you take home a lot of trauma. So I understand that. And I also would like to thank you for being transparent about suicide because suicide is a very hard discussion that we don’t have.”
Barton told the council that some fire departments in other counties have special support teams to address mental health and suicide of public safety officers, but Genesee County doesn’t. He said he had to leave the council meeting early to attend a Genesee County chief meeting to discuss the very subject of bringing those teams to the county.
“It’s ironic he committed suicide on Saturday. This agenda was out last week, like last Monday or Tuesday and it’s on the agenda,” Barton said. “So they all want me to be there to speak about how important it is.”
Multiple council members asked Barton to let them know how the body could support the department in the future.
“I’m sure everyone in your department is leaning on you and depending on your leadership during these trying times, so I thank you for your leadership, as well as Chief Green’s,” said Councilman Dennis Pfeiffer. “If there’s anything that this body can do to help soften that grievance period or whatever we have to do, please let us know we’re here if you need us.”