Border to border: Missoula women bike for first-responder suicide prevention

Sierra Lake, top left, and Erin Howell, top right, stand with the staff of the Twin Falls Fire Department in Idaho in early May during their 11-day bike ride border to border to raise awareness about first responder suicide. Howell holds the pair’s mascot, a rubber ducky named Linda. (Photo by Sierra Lake and Erin Howell)

Two Missoula women bicycled from the southern U.S. border to Montana in May, raising about $3,000 toward first responder suicide intervention and resources.

Travelling through four states, Erin Howell and Sierra Lake partnered with Next Rung, an organization that provides resources to first responders, to raise awareness about first responder suicide during Mental Health Awareness Month.

The 11 day trip brought the pair through California, Nevada, Idaho and Montana, visiting about a dozen fire departments along the way to tell fireteams about the resources available to them.

The program has a 24-hour peer-to-peer hotline, provides scholarships for counseling and offers monetary assistance to families.

“We are learning that more and more fire departments are going into a peer-to-peer support group they’re building within their departments or within their towns and states, which is fantastic,” Howell said. “Extra resources are always helpful.”

The pair’s last stop was at Missoula Rural Fire District on South Avenue, where they brought the first responders lunch and talked to them about Next Rung. All the while, the team was busy with trainings and responding to calls.

Capt. Michael Bowman of Missoula Rural Fire was unable to comment on Next Rung and its resources.

Suicide among first responders is at a rate of 8 percent and rising, Howell said, and most first responders could be diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, similar to front-line veterans who come back from the military.

Every day during the trip, one first responder had committed suicide, according to Next Rung, Howell said.

“They’re here every single day,” Lake said. “Their shift, it never ends until they retire and they come back every single day.”

Fire fighters have recently taken on more medical calls, with many of them being trained in emergency medical services and working long hours.

An understaffed fire department in Las Vegas expressed concerns about forcing firefighters to take on more shifts.

“You’re already seeing stressful things, you’re already not sleeping for 48 hours depending on how many calls there are, and now you have another shift to take because you’re understaffed,” Lake said. “There’s a lot of other factors that are going into just stressing people to their max.”

Howell has worked as a volunteer firefighter for the East Missoula Fire Department for two years, along with being an emergency medical technician, and knows the struggles that come with the job.

“But every year it’s growing; every year the numbers are growing, the calls are growing,” Howell said. “East Missoula, in just the two years I’ve been there, our call volume has gone up.”

Howell and Lake started a GoFundMe page, raising over $1,000 that will be matched by a donor for Next Rung.

“This is a brotherhood, and you know it,” Howell said. “It was definitely something that you saw all the way through this ride, that it’s a brotherhood.”

Contact reporter Mari Hall via email at mari.hall@missoulacurrent.com