George Redner III, of Levittown, Pennsylvania, loved his work saving lives as a firefighter and EMT.
He worked full time for the fire department at Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, New Jersey, while juggling shifts with three other rescue squads and a volunteer fire company in Bucks County.
“He was always happy,” said his mother, Jacqui Redner, also of Levittown. “He was always singing. He was always the jokester.”
But there were problems hidden behind that upbeat exterior, she said. Her son was haunted by memories of some of the people he couldn’t save.
“He would wake up in the middle of the night with nightmares and cold sweats,” she said.
But she didn’t know how bad things had gotten, she said, until she got the news that he had taken his own life. On August 1, 2015, the 27-year-old Redner was struck and killed by an Amtrak train at the Levittown/Tullytown station in what was determined a suicide.
Less than a year later, Bucks County lost another firefighter/EMT to suicide: Kenneth W. Hopkins of Croydon, who had once been Redner’s partner on the Bucks County Rescue Squad.
The double loss led to the creation of a new helpline for first responders in Bucks that launched in January and is run by the Lenape Valley Foundation, an area mental health center.
Sharon Curran, an associate executive director of the foundation, said it uses a peer-support model, where callers are connected to other first responders who have been trained to provide counseling. Curran said that, because the volunteers staffing the helpline have first-hand experience of what the job is like, they are uniquely qualified to help their colleagues.
The helpline volunteers can also refer callers to therapists experienced in working with first responders. Curran said that the regular exposure to violent accidents, injuries, and deaths endured by workers in the emergency services can lead to post-traumatic stress.
“It’s often the accumulation of many incidents that they’ve been exposed to,” Curran said, that makes counseling support necessary for many first responders.
Hopkins was diagnosed with PTSD about a month before his death, according to his father, also named Kenneth Hopkins. He said his son was taking medication for anxiety and insomnia.
“We tried to get him to change jobs, but that was his passion in life — to help people,” said Hopkins.
He said his son was coming off of one of his regular 24-hour shifts when he took his life. The elder Hopkins said it was difficult getting his son to open up about what was troubling him.
“He was a tough-headed Irishman,” Hopkins said. “You couldn’t get to him.”
That kind of stoicism is common among first responders, said Frank Farry, a state representative from Bucks who helped launch the helpline after pledging to take action in the wake of Redner’s death. A volunteer firefighter of 27 years, Farry described a stigma about showing vulnerability among first responders.
“We can’t have a bad day, we can’t be upset, we have to have that tough chin up in the air,” he said.
The helpline provides 24/7 support though two phone numbers. Police officers can call 267-893-5200. All other first responders are instructed to call 267-893-5400. The calls are answered by workers at the Lenape Valley Foundation’s crisis center, who transfer them to them to the first responder volunteers after verifying that no emergency intervention is needed.
Farry said the helpline was just the start of a larger effort needed to address mental health issues in the emergency services. Jacqui Redner and Kenneth Hopkins said they both hope to see more education for first responders to help them better cope with the stresses of the job.
For Redner, the helpline is a continuation of her son’s legacy.
“Now I feel like my son is still doing something,” she said. “He’s still saving lives even though he’s not here anymore.”