NAMPA — The Ruffing house was more or less always strewn with two things — fire department memorabilia and children’s toys.
That juxtaposition was, perhaps, the perfect image to describe the two things Boise Senior Firefighter Charlie Ruffing loved most in life: his family and his job. Or, rather, his calling, as his friends and coworkers would put it.
For 20 years, Ruffing, a Nampa native, worked as a firefighter in Boise. He made friends, helped an untold amount of people and was twice named Firefighter of the Year, once by Boise, and once by the State of Idaho. The years spent helping people on the worst days of their lives came with a price, and, as his sister, Kathy Richardson, put it, “he had demons, and he had struggles, and it was hard for him to talk about them.”
On May 21, at 53 years old, Ruffing killed himself. He was receiving treatment for a post-traumatic stress injury before his death — something firefighters are five times more likely to develop than the general public. At his memorial service Saturday at the Nampa Civic Center, before a crowd of more than 1,000 people, his family and friends found a way to both honor his memory and speak about the need to end the stigma associated with mental illness among first responders.
“We love you, we stand behind you, we don’t want to lose any more of you,” Richardson told the crowd, which included first responders from across Idaho. “Please let Charlie be the last brother to fall this way.”
‘The biggest kid I ever met’
Ruffing graduated Nampa High School in 1984 and enlisted in the U.S. Navy after that. During his time in the service, he married his wife of 33 years, Tonya, in 1986. The Navy might have been an unusual choice for a high school graduate from a landlocked state, but Ruffing found another Navy veteran among the ranks of the Boise Fire Department — Boise Fire Battalion Chief Aaron Hummel.
“We enjoyed throwing out esoteric naval terms in the firehouse to confuse the rest of the men because we were the only ones who knew what they meant,” Hummel said during the service.
Hummel knew about some of the difficulties Ruffing encountered on the job. There was, for instance, the night of Sept. 10, 2004, when Ruffing was among those who responded to a call near Boise State University after a rowdy sports game. During the course of that call, Ruffing’s knee was crushed between a parked car and a moving ambulance. He would undergo 14 surgeries as a result, Hummel said.
That didn’t prevent him from serving. He became the chairman of the Boise Burnout Fund, which helps people who have been displaced by emergencies. As chairman of the fund, Ruffing organized a fundraiser specifically aimed at helping people displaced by the 2008 Oregon Trail Fire in southeast Boise. Ruffing and his family raised about $110,000 for those fire victims.
It wasn’t unusual for the Ruffing family — or the Ruffing Clan, as they were sometimes known to their friends — to do things together. The family, which consisted of Ruffing, Tonya, and his five daughters, were deeply involved with the other families in the fire department.
Tanja Jenkins, Ruffing’s oldest daughter, remembered rafting trips and other outings with the families, prompting a few ripples of knowing laughter from Saturday’s audience. They were raised, she said, to be “fearless, independent and strong.”
Ruffing’s colleagues spoke about his love for his family. Don Gifford, a retired Boise Fire battalion chief, recalled Ruffing, a former wrestler, play-wrestling with his daughters, and, later bouncing his grandchildren on his knee.
“Charlie was the biggest kid I ever met,” Gifford said.
Aside from get-togethers outside of work, he remembered the family often brought dessert to the fire stations to eat on the job.
He also remembered Ruffing as a dedicated firefighter, someone who somehow struck a meaningful balance between his fierce dedication to work and his devotion to his family. He made time for his friends as well, Gifford said.
“Sometimes you need somebody you just click with in your lifetime, and for me, that was Charlie Ruffing and his entire family,” he said.
Ending the stigma
For more than 20 years, Boise Fire Chief Dennis Doan has spoken out against the stigma among first responders associated with seeking treatment for mental illness and post-traumatic stress injury. He knows the stigma well. He remembers its pervasiveness in the early days as a firefighter. He also remembers undergoing treatment himself for flashbacks.
“It was kind of expected (you) just suck it up, that was part of the job,” Doan said before the service Saturday. “And we’re trying to change that.”
The effort has been successful, at least in the Boise Fire Department. Over the past five or 10 years, Doan said, some employees have sought treatment for post-traumatic stress injuries. They’ve returned and told their stories. It’s helped.
“The other firefighters have seen that that’s OK,” Doan said.
Still, since 1994, first responders have had to use their own vacation time and money when undergoing treatment. That will change July 1, when a new law takes effect, allowing first responders to file for workers’ compensation if they can show they have a post-traumatic stress injury associated with their job. Previously, first responders needed to have an associated physical injury to file for workers’ compensation. This is the result of new legislation the Idaho Legislature passed this most recent session. Doan was instrumental in its passage.
He’s not stopping in his advocacy either.
“While I am proud of that legislation, it doesn’t go far enough, and we need to do more,” he told the crowd.
The legislation will sunset in four years, and he’s concerned lawmakers might not renew it on that date.
In the meantime, he’s working to make sure his firefighters have access to the best care they can get. There is a peer support group, which has received training on how to help firefighters who may be living with a post-traumatic stress injury. There are also more informal debriefings firefighters can take part in after difficult calls.
Ruffing was in treatment for post-traumatic stress injury, Doan said. The last time Doan saw him, a few weeks ago, he seemed cheery, Doan said.
He said he is still wrestling with the guilt he felt as a result of Ruffing’s death.
“Last Tuesday, at 6:20 a.m., I received a call that was the lowest point of my career,” he said. “The weight of the guilt on my shoulders has not left.”
He knew Ruffing personally. Ruffing had served under him between 2006 and 2008, when Doan was a captain in the Boise Fire Department. He remembered Ruffing as “one of the kindest, most giving, gentle and selfless people I’ve ever met.”
“We need more Charlies in our life,” Doan said during the service. “As we leave here today, let’s make a commitment in his memory to remember what matters in life. It’s about relationships. It’s about the journey. It’s about love.”