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Preventing Veteran Suicide and Depression: Advice from Fire Watch, Founder Nick Howland


About The Fire Watch


In today's show, we get in deep with Nick Howland, CEO and Board Director of The Fire Watch. The Fire Watch is Florida’s fight to end veteran suicide. We are uniting our War Fighters and allies to swiftly activate local assets, stand watch, and build a life-saving network. To date, no city, county, or state has systemically reduced its veteran suicide rate. This effort is the first of its kind in the country.


The Problem


Veteran suicide is a growing crisis. At least 20 U.S. veterans are taking their lives every day. To date, solutions to prevent suicide have been inadequate at best. In particular, federal solutions have had little to no effect on the crisis on the ground here in Florida. Given that Florida is home to over 1.5 million veterans, the need and the challenge are evident.


The Origin


Based upon the success and experience of Florida's non-profit K9s For Warriors, the nation’s largest provider of service dogs to disabled American veterans in preventing veteran suicide, The Fire Watch recreates on a regional scale the support system and inter-connectivity required to keep our veterans safe from taking their own lives.


The Plan


The Fire Watch combats veteran suicide in two ways. First, we coordinate local resources with our many veteran service partners to assist veterans in crisis. Second, we are mobilizing a Watch Stander network of 10,000+ community members to learn to identify the risk signs of veterans in crisis and to direct those veterans to the help and resources they need. Our goal is to ensure our War Fighters never slip into crisis at all. Check out our plan below.


Listen Here


Interview Transcript


The Fire Watch Founder Nick Howlin

Interview starts at {13:44}


Mike

Alright, Serena, today we have Nick Howlin on the show. Welcome to the show, Nick.



Nick

Thank you. I appreciate being here.



Mike

Well, I met Nick actually through retired General Mike Fleming from the Cohen clinic. He was on our show. It's been a while.



Serena

Yeah, back in March



Mike

Back when we weren’t that good. He talked about The Fire Watch. I gotta get Nick on. And it's been six months. But Nick, you made it.



Nick

About time. I know that there's a pandemic that got in the way.



Mike

Hey, before we get into the stuff, I did meet Nick and Jacksonville about a month and a half ago. Some of the statistics you keep on veteran suicide are amazing the stuff that you're doing at The Fire Watch is simply amazing. Tell us about yourself and then tell us about the program.



Nick

Thanks, Mike. I appreciate it. And Serena, thanks for having me on the show. My name is Nick Howland. I'm the CEO of The Fire Watch. The Fire Watch is northeast Florida's fight to end veteran suicide was actually an organization that was set up specifically for the purpose of fighting the epidemic of veteran suicide.


Mike, you mentioned data, those of us in the veteran suicide prevention industry, academic data has always plagued us. VA keeps data. But it's two years in reverse. It doesn't go below the state level. If you're trying to solve it from a community approach, the data that has been out there had not been good. We've gathered better data.


The Fire Watch is northeast Florida's fight to end veteran suicide. We represent five counties in Northeast Florida, Baker, Clay, DuVall Nasaan, and St. John's. We were able to strike a deal with the Florida Department of Health where we get the metadata that they have that shows on death certificates, that they're a veteran, and that they died by suicide.


We can actually track by age, gender, race, and era where those suicides occurred from 2010 to 2019. By County and within the county by Census Tract, it's actually pretty neat. It's neat because it allows us to be able to focus our outreach programming on those areas where veterans have historically been most at risk. It's really we're creating a ground-up, locally-led approach to end veteran suicide.



Mike

They always say that all politics are local, all healthcare is local. When you fight things like veteran homelessness and veteran suicide, they are big federal programs, but it's a local battle. The more data you have, the more you can fight veteran suicide, the more you can fight anything. I was just amazed that you showed me while in Jacksonville. You guys do a lot of research and really try to get that ground roots level knowledge of what's going on in your community. And it's working. So tell us about some of the, you know, success stories?



Nick

Well, the fact that we know where our highest, risk veterans are located helps us to kind of inform our programming. Our cornerstone program is something that we call the Watch Stander Program. Clinically you would refer to that as an early intervention gatekeeper program, like CPR, the Heimlich maneuver, or SafeTalk. What we're doing is engaging community members to learn the warning signs of veterans in crisis, to learn how to ask them if they need help, and to learn how to direct them to the resources that they need.


It's a 30 to 40-minute training portal that we offer on our website, or we can do it in person. Like CPR, we're trying to get as many members of the community to learn those warning signs and to know how to take action. We're up to 1,300 members now and only a little over a year old. Our goal is 10,000 within the next five years. Why? Because we think that number is material to be able to help veterans in our community and in Northeast Florida, there are 150,000 of them. If a veteran starts showing the warning signs of crisis, a neighbor, a church member, a colleague, a friend knows what to do and how to take action.


The closest parallel is CPR. In the 1900s we knew that heart distress was the leading cause of death of men over age 55. We knew the warning signs. Your left side hurts, you start sweating, you're overweight. The solutions throughout the first half of the 20th century were more cardiologists, grew the heart wing (of the hospital), and put emergency equipment in ambulances, etc. It wasn't until the 1970s when they launched CPR, which is an early intervention gatekeeper program by training community members to recognize the signs early and to know to get help. They actually started having a marked downward effect on heart attacks and that's what we're trying to do with our Watch Stander Program for veteran suicides.



Mike

You're mostly a volunteer organization, right?



Nick

100% volunteer. I'm the only full-time staff, we're about to bring on another one. We have a board of five, our chair is someone you've had on your podcast before General Mike Fleming of the Steven A Cohen Military Family Clinic at Centerstone. We'll call the Cohen clinic for short. Mike is the outreach director and he's also the chair of The Fire Watch. Mike is a remarkable veteran advocate.



Mike

I've met him quite a few times at different events and he cares about the veteran community.



Nick

It's his brainchild and a gentleman named Rory Diamond, who's the CEO of Canines for Warriors. Dan being another veteran advocate and a handful of local veteran or veteran advocate politicians in Northeast Florida that said, let's get this done and created this ground-up approach. We've subsequently spun off as a 501(c)3, and that way we can launch our programming statewide, which we plan to do this fall.


You can imagine if you had the data to know where people are most likely to choke, then you trained people in Heimlich, and pre-positioned them in those places where people are most likely to choke. That's what we're doing. We're identifying where people are most likely to slip into crisis. And we're training people in those areas to be able to recognize when someone is slipping into crisis.



Mike

Is there a number of people calling in? You have the training aspect. I know there's the veteran crisis hotline, you guys have volunteers on phones and outreach centers, how does it work?



Nick

We do not. Our program is all about finding out where the hotspots are, focusing on outreach efforts, and driving our community-led program to those places. When people go through our 30 to 45-minute free training, they learn to identify a veteran in crisis and send them to the veteran crisis line. If they identify a veteran who needs help, which is an ideal state because we're getting to a veteran before they slip into crisis, we direct them to call 211 or our veterans resources guide at thefirewatch.org. We don't have a call center. We're training people to be able to direct veterans to those places.



Mike

Nick, when I was in Jacksonville, there was a lady who had gotten a phone call. I think there was a veteran who needed medical assistance. He didn't want it, she came to you. The next thing I know, you made a phone call. And then you had two volunteers on the way out to talk to the veteran in-person to see if you could get him or her help. How's that part of Fire Watch? It just intrigued me how fast you guys work together? And got someone out there to the veteran?



Nick

That's a great question, Mike. On that particular instance, you and I had worked together at the Jacksonville Military Veteran Coalition event, which meets quarterly. I had gotten a call earlier, just prior to that event from a watchstander who's gone through our training, knows to recognize crisis signs, and to direct veterans to the help they need. It was a real particular case because this watchstander had come across this veteran who was homeless, living in his car, he was an Air Force veteran, mid-50s, Gulf War, had pretty much reached his wit's end, and he didn't want to be helped. So our watchstander was trying to connect them to a local shelter to get him a roof over his head, called 211 to see if they could find any emergency assistance. The veteran refused at all. We reached a point where we wanted the police to do a welfare check on him. He recoiled at that. He said, basically, that he had had a bad experience with police in his past, that his own family had Baker Acted in the past and he would kill himself if they tried to Baker Act him. We were really reaching a point where he did not want to be helped.


This was a situation we didn't know how to deal with. When you came across that, Mike, there were a couple of us huddling up trying to figure out what to do.l Wounded Warrior Project stepped in and said, we've got a team to handle these kinds of situations. We engaged that team. You might remember General Mike Liddington, the CEO of Wounded Warrior Project, also located in Jacksonville. He was at the event. He hooked me up with his special situations team. We put a plan in place since a veteran didn't want help. We had a team approach (the veteran), working through the scenarios again, trying to get him to be reasonable. There's plenty of transitional housing options for veterans in our region, and in the end, he refused it all. So we actually directed him as a last resort, someone who doesn't want to be Baker Acted, if he's in danger of hurting himself, to the Department of Families and Family Services.


They did an adult welfare check on him. At that point, they make the decision, if he can take care of himself, or if he needs to, be taken into protective services. From an adult standpoint, it was a very difficult situation. You know, in our two years on The Fire Watch, encountering hundreds of situations, we've never seen a situation where everything in our decision tree came up empty. We had to reach that final solution, but we kept him safe. What I understand is that Adult Protective Services is taking care of him. And that's what's important to us because no veteran is left behind.



Mike

I love that story because it took a village to get him the help he needed. As it turned out that village all happened to be in one room that day.



Nick

Yeah, yeah, we huddled up and talked about it, and resources were contributed at that point. Wounded Warrior said, yes, the veteran had a specific case where he was living in his car and his car didn't work. Wounded Warrior said, we'll take care of his car, get it fixed up, so you can get anywhere he wants. Then we realized he didn't have a license.



Mike

Now that sounds like a typical Navy story right there.



Nick

Then the special situations team said we'll take him and get him a license. It was all sorts of things that we're trying to figure out as we went. It goes to show that as veterans helping veterans we're not going to quit, we're not going to turn our back on one or leave them behind. It's just not going to happen. That's the joy of having a pre-positioned group of 1000s of folks out there who are vigilant to the concerns of veterans and willing to do what it takes to help.



Serena

I know you're located in Florida, will there be a way that you guys will be nationwide? Is that the goal someday?



Nick

A passive listener would think that I just wired you money to ask that question. We started nearly two years ago, in November 2019. In Northeast Florida, we didn't even really put together our business plan or program plan until January-February. We launched it right about COVID time in March of 2020. Nothing has slowed us down because we realize we can launch our training programs online. While people were sitting at home, we directed them to our programming and trained a lot of watchstanders that way.


Since earlier this year, we started doing a lot of in-person events that our numbers have driven up. What that means is that our program has merit and there's a lot of folks interested. We've talked to folks from the Department of Veteran Affairs in the states of Maryland and Arizona. We converse every day with Florida's Department of Veteran Affairs. They have an organization called the Governor's Challenge, which is focused on trying to develop a statewide veterans Suicide Prevention Initiative. They have recently asked if I could figure out how to fund and launch our Watch Stander Program on a state level. We're expected to launch by the end of September, certainly by Veterans Day. We want to deliver this Watch Stander program statewide.



Mike

In the state of Alabama, Governor Ivey launched an initiative for veterans, job opportunities, lower veteran suicide. That program needs to move over to Alabama.



Nick

It's all about funding. Right now the five counties that have funded this program and a handful of sources in the last two years, were apportioning money to devote to launching statewide. It's going to spread in a phased way, based on the funding that we have. I'm the only full-time employee and I manage a lot of vendors.


Psych Armor put our training vendor that put the portal together. They're the country's leading military and veteran culture online training nonprofit. A marketing vendor in it that does our web and app and, and data analytics vendor, you can actually see our data by county in the five counties in Northeast Florida on our website at thefirewatch.org. You click on data and you can actually see the data. It's pretty neat. We're taking that whole concept.


We're expanding it statewide because the Florida Department of Veteran Affairs Governor's Challenge team said, the way that we're going to combat veteran suicide is ground up. The Governor’s Challenge Team likes what we've done in Northeast Florida and we want to spread it across the entire state. So we'll be launching the Watch Stander Program and focusing on some of the hotspots that we see across Florida.



Serena

So when people go to your website to become a Watch Stander, is there only one initial training or are there more available?



Nick

Yes, the initial training is 30 to 45 minutes. We have two paths, either a civilian path or a veteran path. If you're a civilian, there's an extra 15-minute video in there. A military veteran culture video called “15 Things Every Veteran Wants you to Know.” Then it gets into our training program, which trains you to recognize the signs and ask a veteran if they need help and to expedite getting the veteran help. But once you've signed up to be a watch stander, you get into the portal, your own private Watch Stander portal that's brought to us by Psych Armor, and that gives you free access to all our Psych Armor’s back end training.


Psych Armor has over 100 short training videos on military culture, suicidal ideation, identification, leadership, management, and all sorts of military veteran culture training courses. You're able to take whatever you want. You only have to take our 30 to 45-minute course to become a watchstander and take a pledge to get certified. From that point on, you can take whatever training you want. Every so often, we'll send the watchstanders a great new training on Psych Armor. Remember, you can get in your portal and take this training you can learn about the Columbia scale who is likely to suicide. But there are a lot of neat opportunities there. As we develop the program, we’ll get to a point where we have levels of watchstanders. Perhaps a squad leader level and a team leader level. Additional training is required to attain those levels.



Mike

You actually read my mind because my guess is, you do the initial training to become a watch stander, you get a few phone calls under your belt, you get the experience. Most veterans, I know, will be back on there getting as much training as they can. So they can help the next person that calls on that line.



Nick

Yeah, that's exactly it. Right now, we would have to develop the functionality to track the courses that you've taken, which doesn't exist right now. You can take whatever you want. Once we get the funding to take that to the next level, we would do that. Right now, for us, the object is to get as many people trained on that basic training as we possibly can. But we do see that as a next step in the program.



Mike

Alright, so we know about The Fire Watch. So wait a minute, didn't you serve this great nation as well?



Nick

I'm a Navy guy and I live in a navy town. Jacksonville is a Navy town. My chair, Mike Fleming, would yell at me for saying that. Hopefully, he doesn't listen to this podcast. He started out as a Marine and transitioned into the Army. I was a naval officer. I was commissioned in ‘95. I served four years and got out in 99. I did two years on a destroyer, USS Chandler, and then two years at a Navy SEAL special boat unit where I was the Officer in Charge of a couple of riverine boats. It was a blast, in particular, because we're in those years between wars. We were training all the time. I'm not a combat veteran. In those years from 95 to 99, there were some things in Bosnia, but my deployments were all training deployments. On the ship when we did a few three-month deployments for Counter Narcotics off the coast of South America. When I was the Officer in Charge, we had specialized training for Navy's riverine interdiction.



Mike

Hold on. Are you doing riverine interdiction?



Nick

Yeah, drug interdiction, insertion, and extraction of special operators. The boat unit that I was in charge of, were going over to Senegal to be part of the African Crisis Response Initiative. This was a training exercise that was done every year. When the bombings happened in Africa, where the first al Qaeda bombings were in ‘98, they canceled that deployment. I ended up just doing a lot of training exercises up and down the Pearl River on the Louisiana, Mississippi border. Which is a really interesting training environment that they still use today. It simulates a whole bunch of different flora and fauna, like Southeast Asia, South America, West Africa, etc.



Mike

It's just as dangerous down there in some places.



Nick

Yeah.Third world.



Mike

Listen, I appreciate your service. And I tell people, the only way an officer gets on our show is if they help our enlisted, so you're helping our enlisted. So welcome to the show.



Nick

There you go.



Mike

Well, I don't want to take up your whole night. I appreciate you coming on. I know Serena appreciates it. We say it every time we learn something new, every guest we, you know, that comes on. With all the great veteran programs out there, It's hard to believe how many people we have helping veterans and still, we have things like veteran homelessness and veteran suicide solved. Every person is making a difference. Thank you for everything you guys are doing over there at The Fire Watch.



Nick

Well, thanks for bringing it to everybody's attention. Thanks for having us on the podcast Mike and Serena. I enjoyed it. So appreciate you having me.



Serena

Thanks for being here.



Mike

Thank you. All right. Serena, The Fire Watch? What do you think?



Serena

I'm glad we finally got him on the show after talking to Mr. Fleming and got to hear what The Fire Watch is about. I think it's a good tool for your toolbox to be able to identify if someone is having some troubles, they're suicidal, maybe it's something we all should train towards. We all should have, not just for veterans, but just people in general?



Mike

I do think we have a lot of suicide ideation training in the military, and we look for signs. We're trained to do that. We know what our buddies go through but some of these volunteers are not veterans. It's good that they have a training program. With the right data, you can really make a difference. They have really done a good job of figuring out where these people are at risk. People are going into the community and helping at that level. That's what it's going to take. It's not going to be some big grand federal program. It's going to take People like The Fire Watch in the community making a difference each and every day.



Serena

I'm interested in the training because fortunately, I don't know, anybody on a personal level who's committed suicide. However, the people that I know that know somebody, always say it came out of nowhere. I’m wondering if we were trained, maybe it wouldn't seem out of nowhere.



Mike

In the past year, I've called people twice from Facebook posts. They said, if I hadn't called them, that would have suicided.



Serena

Really? Wow.



Mike

A lot of times, it's just about being there for somebody. It’s as simple as picking up the phone. You never know when it's gonna happen. Serena, you could be reading a post or talking to someone on the phone. You don't have to have the training to call somebody. If you do have that and you know where to tell them to go, that can make a huge difference, it can make the ultimate difference.



Serena

I had a little bit of training as an ombudsman, however, it wasn't to identify it. When I was ombudsman for a different command. People who had the idea would call us saying I need help. But sometimes it was too far gone for people that needed help.


Mike

That's just good to know that people are out there. If you're listening, and you're having any thoughts, know people care. There's a program for you. There's help. There are resources, pick up that phone, make that phone call, call the veteran crisis hotline. Call your friend, call your buddy, call 211. Do whatever you need to do, but thank you for listening. I hope everyone out there learns something and go to thefirewatch.org, take the training, and maybe you can help save somebody's life.



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