Fla. fire department rolls out peer support training program
The peer support model recognizes that firefighters tend to trust fellow firefighters far more because of their shared experiences
By Kathy Leigh Berkowitz
LAKELAND, Fla. — Deaths of first responders to suicide, increased depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other symptoms of mental health trauma have led some fire department leaders to change the way they want to see their peers cope with the often stressful and heartbreaking job.
"Tradition is you just suck it up and go about your day, and just let it go," Lakeland Fire Department Lt. Phil Green said Tuesday as the agency rolled out training for peer support last week.
Firefighters fight the macho mentality, the pressure of presenting as invincible, Green said.
"There is a fear of saying, 'I am not OK'," he said, but "we are human just like everybody else."
Green, 36, was one of those peers chosen to take the training in an effort to be a sounding board for fellow firefighters. At 14 years in fire services, he said now that the awareness is there, he hopes people speak up when they need to talk.
First responders face all kinds of trauma on a daily basis.
"Vehicle accidents, all different ages. People hang themselves, shoot themselves. Some are burned to death. I have seen children die. ... I have actually stepped in brain matter on scene. I have placed bodies in body bags," he said.
One day Green said he answered a very bad call involving a child. As a father of a 4-year-old girl, Green said the call had "gotten to" him.
He met with a few other firefighters. "We said, let's go get some coffee."
Tears were shed, and that was OK.
"We finally ended up acting appropriately," he said, "like a human should act."
The adrenaline is hard to shut off. Firefighters are on 24 hours, then off 48 hours.
It is hard to disengage from the hectic pace, even on their days off.
"You can't," he said. "No matter how hard you try. We were talking about that yesterday in class. How our dispatch used to be a printer that would go off at the station — old school printers with the holes on the side. It has got that distinct sound. Be it on your day off, you would hear that printer go off, and it is like, instant. Is there a call? What is going on here?"
The divorce rate for first responders is over 50 percent, Green said.
Green admits he does not share the ugly stuff of his day with his wife.
"If she asks me how my shift was, and I call her right now, I will say it was good. Not in a degrading, sexist way, I just try to protect her world," he said.
The lieutenant said through the years he has learned exercise helps clear the mind. Eating properly helps, and talking with his coworkers.
"The longer I am getting into my career, the more I can turn the switch off a little bit, and enjoy my two days off. Like I told these guys here, I try not to think about this place when I leave here. I try to just turn it off, because it is going to be waiting for me when I come back."
The peer support model is a program offered through the Florida Firefighters Safety & Health Collaborative and recognizes that firefighters tend to trust fellow firefighters far more because of their shared experiences, said LFD spokeswoman Janel Vasallo.
"The Lakeland Fire Department wants to ensure its firefighters, along with others in the region, have access to the resources and expertise needed to prevent a first responder from ever having to suffer through mental health issues on their own," said Vasallo.
An anonymous survery was distributed throughout the department, asking firefighters to write down the name or names of people they would turn to if they needed help coping with something. Those whose names popped up numerous times were gathered and brought to the training as the first peers to be certified under the program.
Tom Howard, Executive Director of the Illinois Firefighter Peer Support organization, has 30 years in fire services. The instructor of last week's class, he said his hope is to help firefighters dealing with PTSD to go from "reactive" to "pro-active" in dealing with trauma. "A lot of the younger guys are more willing to open up to these concepts," he said.
In the early part of 2018, LFD joined the Florida Firefighters Safety and Health Collaborative and adopted the peer support model.
Neighboring departments invited to attend the training included Polk County Fire Rescue, Winter Haven Fire Department and Plant City Fire Department.
LFD hired the Illinois Firefighter Peer Support non-profit organization to provide the training.
"PTSD and its subsequent effects are very real in the fire service," LFD Assistant Chief Rick Hartzog said. "Peer support is an excellent way for firefighters to help their fellow firefighters take the first steps toward mental health recovery, if the need ever arises."
"There is never a reason to not get help," Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd told The Ledger in an interview about what is available for first responders who are struggling with the stresses of their jobs and the scenes they cover.
According to PCSO Human Resources Director Donna Parker, the department has a number of things available to help those who work for the department.
"There is the EAP," she said, the Employee Assistance Program, a 24-7 confidential help line available to all PCSO members and their families. Once a year, the EAP will report to the PCSO only the actual number of people who used the service, but nothing else, as it is confidential, she said.
"Every member receives six free sessions per year, and their family," said Parker.
Scott Wilder, PCSO director of communications, said another way the department tries to help is by providing a volunteer chaplain program.
"There are 34 chaplains — diverse, of all denominations," he said, who are available 24-7, and such help is also confidential. "They actually respond to some of the critical incidents. They are pretty intuitive, if they see someone struggling, they may go and chat with them a while."
Then there are Critical Incident Stress Management teams, Parker said, comprised of civilians, detention officers, and law enforcement officers.
Another team is for Critical Incident Shootings, deputy involved shootings. In those cases, whether the deputy wants the team's help or not, they are required to see a doctor and be evaluated to make sure they are fit for duty and they are given the opportunity to get any help they need, Parker said.
Wilder adds that while there are always going to be issues, it is just like "anybody in the general public. Some will go out and get the help they need, and some won't."
All deputies are required to attend crisis intervention training.
During the course of one of those training sessions, a 15-year deputy told Judd that as he got to day three, "I thought they were talking about me here." He did not sleep well, got angry easy. Judd said the deputy added, "I thought that was part of life."
After getting the help he needed, the deputy told Judd "the sky in my world is blue again."
Winter Haven Police Department Chief Charlie Bird heads up both the fire and police departments, and said WHPD is creating a formal Critical Incident Stress Management Program that includes ways to better identify and meet the needs of department members and their families who may be in distress.
And in Haines City, Police Chief James Elensky said that while in times past there were no avenues of counseling for law enforcement, today is much different.
PTSD is real and recognized as such, he said, and something that may affect one officer at a scene may not affect another officer at the same scene.
Haines City has a supervisor assigned to the Critical Incident Stress Management Team, which counsels officers in situations of high stress.
"Many law enforcement members/personnel tend to keep their emotions inside and feel as though they are weak if they bring their emotions to others," he added.