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Stop, drop and roll: Not just for fires

  • Published
  • By Eric M. White
  • 910th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

This three-verb instruction has resonated through elementary schools for decades. It’s a simple, quickly learned, step-by-step guide that fire safety educators hope children will remember throughout life should the unlikely scenario that their clothes catch fire become reality.

According to the U.S. Fire Administration, 3,704 people in the U.S. died due to fires in 2019. The majority of these were related to structural fires where smoke inhalation, rather than the actual flames, poses the greatest risk. That means that in the majority of fire-related deaths, the stop, drop and roll adage is meaningless. An extremely low percentage of the population will ever need to use the training.

Yet we still teach it, and with good purpose. It can and does save lives.

By contrast, the Centers for Disease Control reports that 47,511 people died by suicide in the U.S. in 2019. These deaths were the result of 1.2 million attempts.

The Air Force reports annual statistics on deaths by suicide. It remains the leading cause of death for Airmen. Yet how many Youngstown Air Reserve Station Airmen remember having suicide prevention training or education in elementary school?

The tide of prevention education and training is turning, with more organizations providing it more frequently and earlier in life, but that still leaves the majority of adults not having the same type of stop, drop and roll guidance as it relates to suicide prevention, instilled in them from an early age. The value of such training is that through repetition it becomes instinctual when a crisis hits. The idea is that the instant a person’s clothing catches fire, they remember “stop, drop and roll,” and act accordingly. The training is designed to override other instincts like running, attempting to pat the flames with a hand or looking for a nearby water source. Contrary to their intent, these actions can delay extinguishing the flames, causing irreversible harm.

A study reported by the Journal of Clinical Society in 2009 suggested that the amount of time between the first thought of suicide and the attempt was relatively short, generally less than ten minutes.

This information highlights two major needs for suicide prevention training. The first is preventing a person from getting to the point where they have thoughts of suicide. The Air Force has pursued several avenues to answer this need.

Airmen are regularly instructed to practice ACE. Ask a fellow Airman if they’re having thoughts of death, self-harm or suicide. Care about their answer by looking for signs and asking follow-up questions. Escort the Airman to a qualified professional or leader if the person is having thoughts of suicide or needs help. ACE is one example of many initiatives. More information is available at the Air Force’s residence website here: www.resilience.af.mil.

These initiatives, although helpful, are not foolproof. People still sometimes arrive at a point where they are contemplating self-harm. What then? That’s the second need. What instincts ought to kick in for someone who feels overwhelmed by the circumstances of life, has seemingly insurmountable conflict or feels a sense of hopelessness, and is now alone and at risk of making a snap decision?

We expect that most people will recall the stop, drop and roll drill if their clothing catches fire, but we’ve not collectively programmed such an instinctual response to the aforementioned predicaments. It’s almost as if we need to teach a short, memorable approach from an early age so that it overrides other actions when we find ourselves in crisis.

But perhaps we already have one.

STOP

In the event of a clothing fire, the fight or flight response kicks in. People often run for help, look for water or begin patting their clothes. These actions have less of a chance to help than dropping and rolling.

Stopping is the act of stepping back from a situation. It’s a strategic pause, a moment to take a deep breath, to reflect, to consider what’s going on in your mind and body a bit less as an experiencer and a bit more as an observer. It means not making rash decisions and approaching the situation with a level head. It is an intentional moment to consider what’s going on and what to do next.

DROP

As a response to fire, the ground has a powerful ability to extinguish the flames by smothering them out. But a person on fire has to actually make contact with it. Staring at the ground doesn’t work. Neither does hoping the ground comes to them, because the ground, like people, doesn’t always know we have a need.

Dropping, as it pertains to mental health, is the act of putting yourself in contact with people who have the ability to help, and there is no shortage of people who fit that bill.

Call a friend.

Message a coworker.

Knock on a neighbor’s door.

Contact a pastor, priest, rabbi, imam, guru or any other spiritual adviser.

Drive to the hospital, a mental health provider or the police department.

Call a crisis hotline like the free, confidential Military Crisis Line.

The point is less where you go and more that you go. There is nothing to lose by talking to someone. There is quite a bit to gain.

ROLL

The first two steps are essential to the process, but rolling is the action that actually extinguishes the flames. It’s not easy. It’s not comfortable. It’s not always immediate. But it helps.

The fire illustration is plain, but there are many things that might be “rolling” as it pertains to mental health. More than any single action, rolling is the act of deciding. If you see a person literally on fire rolling on the ground, you don’t question what they’re doing. They have decided to resist the flames and take action to extinguish them. In fact, you'd probably rush to help.

Our elementary school training has normalized the act of rolling, so we don’t question it when we see someone on fire. Likewise, we’ve made tremendous strides in normalizing mental health care, both preventative and reactionary.

So roll.

Decide to resist the flames and work with the amply available resources that can help. It may not be easy. It may not be comfortable. It may not be quick. But resilience is not immunity to trials. It is the willingness to face them when they come.

It may not always feel like it in the moment, but acting on suicidal ideations is a choice. And given the research from the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, it is often an impulsive choice. In the moment, it can feel like the only option, like there is no hope, like it is the best solution. But those feelings are wrong, and the stop, drop and roll maneuver can provide the vantage point to see those feelings for what they are: lies.

Should you ever find yourself contemplating self-harm, before making a choice with irreversible consequences, take a moment to stop, drop and roll.