By Liz Collin

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — A Twin Cities father is sharing his heavy loss with the hope it will lead others to find help.  St. Paul firefighter Tommy McDonough died from suicide last month.  He was 28 years old.

There is a struggle among Minnesota firefighters to respond to their own silent emergency.

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The youngest of five, Tommy McDonough or junior as he went by — wanted nothing more than to follow in his father’s footsteps.  Tom McDonough was a long-time training chief for the St. Paul Fire Department and currently serves as the State’s Emergency Response Teams Coordinator in the MN Fire Marshall’s Office.

“There was never any way I was going to keep him out of the fire service.  He wanted to be a firefighter as long as any of us could remember,” McDonough said. “Everybody who talks about him talks about this massive smile he always had on his face but deep down you didn’t see what he was struggling with.”

Struggles that father and son had talked about before.

“I’d been in the fire service since ’83 and I hadn’t seen some of the stuff he had seen,” McDonough said.

His family worried about Tommy’s alcohol use and uncharacteristic short temper, finally convincing him it was time to seek professional help for the sake of his two children.

“He was really trying to get some help in March and what happened in March? COVID locked everything down,” McDonough said.

Eventually, Tommy paid out of pocket to talk to someone, too proud to take his parent’s money and frustrated, his dad says, at a cumbersome system. But, by then it was too late.

Tommy took his life on August 24th.

“I think you could call it a crisis. It’s certainly a crisis for me,” his dad said.

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George Esbensen is President of the Minnesota Firefighter Initiative.

“We have a system here in Minnesota where we do not support, from a policy maker’s standpoint, our firefighters,” he said.

The program was born from mounting cardiac, cancer, and emotional trauma cases.  While one firefighter in Minnesota dies every other year from an in-line of duty death, Esbensen says suicide kills four to six of the state’s 20,000 active firefighters each year.  93% of whom serve as volunteers and when it comes to physical and mental health funding, the state ranks 48th out of 50.

“When we talk about what we ask these firefighters to do 24/7, 365 and then when the rigors of the job get to them there’s no support,” Esbensen said.

McDonough believes a better system would have helped his son.

“I think from my experience now is to make it as easy as possible for these folks who are big and stubborn and proud to get in and get the help they need,” Tom McDonough said.

Speaking out through the stigma with the hope it heals others.

A fund has been set up to help Tommy McDonough’s children in the future.

The Minnesota Firefighter Initiative also offers a 24-hour peer hotline: 888-784-6634

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If you or someone you love needs help, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. The number is 1-800-273-TALK.

Liz Collin