Battalion chief Mike Zainfeld, a 25-year firefighting veteran of Cowlitz 2 Fire & Rescue, took his own life Thursday morning, the fire agency and Kelso police reported Friday.
Zainfeld had been on medical leave and was not on shift or duty when he died, Cowlitz 2 reported. Cowlitz 2 Fire Chief Dave LaFave said Zainfeld suffered from job-related post-traumatic stress, so it is considered a line of duty death.
Zainfeld’s death is a reminder about the hidden stresses that first responders face routinely and which they spoke about Friday while remembering their comrade as an outgoing, kindhearted leader dedicated to serving his community.
“He was about as dedicated to the fire service as anybody you’re ever going to find,” LaFave said. “Mike was kind of like the guy who balanced the scales between different kinds of personalities. Mike was always happy, always working with and for the folks he was responsible for.”
Zainfeld, 41, leaves behind his wife, Kelly, and two boys, Braden, 17, and Evan, 16.
Washington State Patrol troopers and Cowlitz 2 firefighters escorted Zainfeld’s body to the Thurston County Coroner’s Office Thursday. LaFave said Friday that the agency was in the process of bringing Zainfeld home and planning funeral services.The Thurston County Coroner’s Office reported late Friday afternoon that Zainfeld died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound and that the manner of his death is a suicide.Zainfeld was a kindhearted man who looked out for everybody, said Cowlitz Fire District 6 firefighter paramedic Stacie Poff.
“He was a leader. Very good at his job. He loved his family, his friends.”
Zainfeld started with Cowlitz 2 in September 1994 as a fire cadet in the first year of that program. He was hired full time in 2000 after completing paramedic training in Tacoma.
After several years as a firefighter, he was promoted to lieutenant, captain, and finally battalion chief. He was active in all hazard deployments, qualified as a division supervisor, and has been on assignments in several states, according to the Kelso PD press release.
Zainfeld enjoyed spending time with his immediate family and his extended fire family. He also enjoyed spending time with his German shepherd, Max, and he enjoyed the outdoors, fishing, flying his drone and reading history books, the press release notes.
While LaFave did not immediately have more information on Zainfeld’s death, he said the firefighter was often responding to stressful calls, such as the 2014 Oso landslide in Snohomish County.
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Poff, who was herself diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in 2017, said Friday that first responders tend to be “fixers” that don’t always take time to look after themselves.
“We respond to other people’s worst days,” Poff said. “We’re that face they need to see (to show) that everything’s OK, we’re here to help. They see that persona we have on scene, but they don’t see what comes after, where we have to figure out how we’re going to pick up the pieces. ... We’re fixers. We like to fix things and be busy, so we don’t necessarily give ourselves time to feel our feelings. ... You never really see the dark side of the things we go through.”
Zainfeld’s death comes during National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month and about a month after the Cowlitz County Chaplaincy added three new volunteer chaplains to its crisis support team. Volunteer chaplains take emergency response, first aid, victim support and stress management courses, among other training. Paul Bricknell, executive director of the Chaplaincy, said smells, sounds and familiar locations can be triggers for firefighters who have responded to traumatic calls.“They will relive the things that they see and experience,” Bricknell said. “Those images will replay in their mind, their heart, and they’ll wear those and do their best to kind of push them aside, or bury them, or talk about them. ... Imagine going to work and experiencing trauma on a day-to-day basis, and you put it in your backpack. (Firefighters) take off their gear, but they can’t take off what they see. ... They take that home, to the grocery store, to their kids’ baseball game. It’s hard to shake.”
Earlier this summer, Cowlitz County Fire District 6 launched a campaign to shed light on the mental health obstacles first responders face.
“A lot of us are struggling with it,” Poff said Friday.
She said people should look out for friends who appear to be distancing themselves or showing moodiness or other unusual changes in behavior. Increased use of alcohol and other substances can also be a clue that something is going on, she said.
The mental healthcare system is hard to navigate, Poff said, which can add to the stress people already face. Many firefighters rely on each other when times are tough, she said.
In 2018, the Washington legislature passed a bill recognizing post-traumatic stress disorder as an occupational disease for first responders. The bill allowed law enforcement officers, firefighters and emergency medical technicians to make workers’ compensation claims for post-traumatic stress disorder. State law previously prohibited those claims if they were based on mental conditions or disabilities caused by stress.
Poff said Zainfeld should be remembered for his service.
“He gave everything he had to his community, his family, and his peers,” Poff said. “I hope the community focuses on the brightness that he brought us everyday. He truly is going to be missed.”