As a firefighter, paramedic and member of a search and rescue team, Rich Livengood played the role of real-life hero. And the Treynor, Iowa, man looked the part, too.
He was a sharp-jawed, no-B.S. man with a wry smile. He was a model citizen who, in his time away from his paramedic shifts with the Omaha Fire Department, served his hometown as a volunteer firefighter and his country as a trained scuba diver and rescuer for FEMA.
Livengood had married his hometown sweetheart. They’d had a happy marriage, four children and a smattering of dogs. Rich’s vices seemed limited to coffee, cigarettes and the more-than-occasional swear word.
What was missed in this portrait of heroism was all the nights — years and years of nights — when Rich struggled to get more than an hour of sleep.
What was missed is the only complaint Rich seemed to have about work — that it got him “worked up.”
What was missed until it was too late and his wife was standing over his body was something that in hindsight became glaringly, sadly obvious: The helper had needed help. And had never asked for any.
Now, four years after his suicide, Omaha Fire Capt. William R. “Rich” Livengood is being formally recognized as dying in the line of duty. On Sept. 15, his name will be added to a memorial to fallen firefighters in Colorado Springs, Colorado. A contingent of Omaha firefighters and Livengood family members will be on hand for the ceremony.
The day acknowledges a challenge fire departments across the country face as reports of depression, PTSD and suicide among their crews appear on the rise. The suicide rate in general is increasing in the United States, but the risk factors are acute for first responders such as firefighters and paramedics whose jobs put them close to trauma.
The general shortage of help for firefighters battling mental illness and substance abuse is so great that the International Association of Firefighters opened a 64-bed treatment center in Maryland in 2016. So far, the center has treated 500 firefighters — about half for post-traumatic stress disorder.
A job that puts one face to face with human suffering can take a toll, and it did for Rich Livengood. Over a 15-year career, he was called to such deadly scenes as a 2001 school bus crash in west Omaha and a 2014 grain tower explosion. In between were countless 911 calls.
Two psychologists hired to determine whether his suicide could be linked to being a firefighter found that the cumulative trauma negatively affected Livengood.
Thomas Haley, a psychologist hired by the Omaha firefighters union, said, “In my opinion, within a reasonable degree of psychological certainty, this act was directly caused by the (PTSD) that was a result of his experience and encounters while on the job as a paramedic and firefighter for the City of Omaha.”
Casey Stewart, the psychologist hired by the city’s fire and police pension board, reached the same conclusion: “It is my opinion that the conditions of his employment and his reactions to those conditions were the most proximal cause of his suicide.”
To better understand how this all unfolded, I visited the Livengood home in Treynor to talk to the last person to see Rich alive: his wife, Heather. Before I even got inside, two things stopped me. One was a stone monument on which was carved: “Our family Chain is broken.” Next to that were three pairs of beat-up men’s boots and shoes.
Heather Livengood offered a warm welcome and a correction to my assumption: The shoes belong to Broc, the youngest Livengood child and the only one of the four kids still at home. A 12-year-old when his dad died, Broc is now 17. Practically a man.
Livengood’s firefighting career began in Carson, Iowa, where he was raised. He was a 1986 Carson-Macedonia High School graduate and served on the tiny southwest Iowa town’s volunteer force. He served in the U.S. Army, worked at a rock quarry in Crescent, Iowa, and was a Council Bluffs firefighter before joining the Omaha department in 1999.
Livengood was stoic, deliberate and seemed to go after what he wanted. He’d popped the question to Heather, whom he’d known as a teenager, on a Wednesday in 1989. They got married that Sunday. They put down roots in Treynor, a small Iowa town about a half-hour drive from Omaha.
Rich was trained as a paramedic, climbed the ranks to captain, volunteered for duty in Treynor and became a certified scuba diver, helping with water rescues. He was on the scene in 2001 when a school bus ferrying school band members plummeted 60 feet off a West Dodge Road ramp and into the West Papillion Creek below. Three students and an adult were killed. Rich later told Heather that he had to climb over dead children to save ones who were trapped. He was on the scene in the January 2014 explosion at the old International Nutrition plant near 77th and I Streets in which a storage tower fell onto a building, killing two workers and injuring 10 people. In between were countless 911 calls for fires, accidents, heart attacks, shaken babies.
Rich didn’t talk much about the job except to say things to Heather like, “We had three shootings and two knifings.” He was otherwise a “buck up, buttercup” type, his wife said, who was friendly and had friends but was introverted and private. He liked to tinker in the garage.
The only sign something was amiss was insomnia. Rich could not sleep. Heather blamed the firefighter schedule: a nine-day run of 24 hours on, 24 hours off, then off for five days. She said Rich desperately wanted to sleep but dared not take sleep aids — he’d need to be alert on his shifts.
The lack of sleep grew acute after the International Nutrition fire.
Heather thought their vacation to the Caribbean island of St. John would help. They had gone with other couples and cut loose. But the day before they were to return to Iowa, a red flag. Rich told her: “I can already feel myself getting all worked up.” He said that a lot in relation to his job: “worked up.”
This time was different. Rich actually said he didn’t want to go back to work.
He did return — for a half-shift he’d planned. But Rich couldn’t finish that. In an uncharacteristic move, Rich had come to work drunk. Supervisors were called, as per policy.
Steve LeClair, the Omaha firefighters union president, drove him home. In a recent interview, LeClair said Rich was upset, embarrassed and worried he’d blown his career over one bad move.
LeClair said he told his friend that things were going to get rough — an internal affairs review would be conducted. But nothing was insurmountable. It was all going to be OK.
“‘This is not something we can’t overcome,’” he’d said.
Rich didn’t sleep that night. The next day, the kids went to school and Rich and Heather shared a cup of coffee in the kitchen. He asked her what she planned to do that day. She told him that their son Dane needed cleats for track, and she was too busy to get them. He offered to do the shoe shopping.
Then he asked her to go outside to smoke. They sat and visited and smoked cigarettes for about 20 minutes. Then Heather went to work on their home computer.
When a Fire Department official called for Rich, Heather answered the phone, but couldn’t find her husband at first. He wasn’t in the house. She hollered outside, but it was windy that March day. So she went outside and saw that the door to the detached garage was open.
Heather walked in and found Rich on the floor. At first she thought he’d had a heart attack. Then she saw a gun. Then Heather called 911.
The rest is a blur of police tape, the kids, firefighter friends, a funeral in Council Bluffs. The Omaha firefighters union helped Heather secure survivor benefits. The arduous process involved a posthumous psychological review.
Rich had passed all tests entering the Fire Department. He was seen as mentally fit. He had never sought help. But the job became too much.
After his death, the Omaha Fire Department responded with policy changes. Eighteen firefighters were given peer-support training. Check-ins were begun after major traumatic incidents. The department became more proactive with counseling and sent firefighters to a treatment center if necessary.
In death, Rich Livengood taught Omaha firefighters that even if you’re a “stud,” as LeClair described Livengood, you still can suffer. That helpers need help, too, and it’s OK to ask. That depression and PTSD are treatable. That no one has to carry all of the suffering.
This still can be a tough sell to people who choose this dangerous line of work and willingly put themselves at risk.
But LeClair does not want to see more names added to the memorial. Not for something preventable such as suicide.
“We want to bring it into the light,” he said. “If it stays in the dark, we will have another.”