Detroit to build enhanced peer support unit at FD after drunk driving incidents, audit
The fire department's current peer support program consists of one full-time employee and has a budget of less than $80,000
James David Dickson
The Detroit News
DETROIT — The Detroit Fire Department is looking to professionalize its peer support efforts, and Mayor Mike Duggan's office will seek a budget hike to that effect this fall.
The need for enhanced peer support services came from an "environmental assessment" for the fire department released Friday.
"There needs to be a sustained, standalone peer support unit," Fire Commissioner Eric Jones told The Detroit News on Friday.
Duggan ordered the audit after two incidents involving Detroit Fire Department personnel drinking alcohol on the job and driving work vehicles. A battalion chief drove a Ford Explorer, while a firefighter drove a fire rig.
"That was extremely disappointing," Jones said.
"We respond to runs and see the aftermath of drinking and driving," he said. "So it's a betrayal to do that. But it's also abnormal."
Both have since resigned, noted Deputy Mayor Conrad Mallett Jr.
"We take this seriously," Mallett said Friday. "Those were just symptoms. We had to do much, much more for our first responders."
The audit released Friday is recommending that the city bolster funding and support for the fire department's peer-to-peer counseling program and implement a behavioral health model similar to what's in place in other major cities such as Boston.
Right now, the department's peer support network consists of one full-time employee, Lenette Woods, and volunteers who have to be pulled from their shifts or called from a list after a crisis.
Its budget, $79,000, will need to increase "by a factor of six or seven," Mallett said. That request should reach Detroit City Council "in the next 60 days," he added.
The department would have four full-time employees, and the volunteer effort and the chaplain corps would both continue.
Boston's peer-to-peer effort is funded with nearly $700,000, the audit noted.
The report cites several traumas firefighters and EMS workers endure: line of duty deaths, patient deaths and scenes involving children who've been hurt or killed.
Mallett partnered with the city's Human Resources Department to conduct 220 interviews with the fire department and its EMS technicians.
The 25-question assessments found nearly 60% of workers voiced concerns over morale and leadership, scheduling, communication and employee recognition — and more than half were unaware of any employee assistance programs offered by the department.
About 60% of workers said they did not observe drinking or alcohol abuse among colleagues. Others said they had witnessed alcohol use, but it was a past practice.
Conversely, many "believe alcohol abuse remains a problem that needs a solution," the report reads.
"Coupled with the fact that many respondents feel like the department does not provide sufficient flexibility to help balance work life and personal life it is clear, the necessity to provide more and better support to fire and EMS first responders is necessary," it says.
Three-quarters of the respondents said they would report potential substance abuse to leadership.
Mallett said those numbers were good signs.
"Those are tremendous positives, that we have that trust," Mallett said. "There's a lot to work with."
But a significant number said they first would try to deal independently with the issue before approaching leadership. A small minority, the assessment found, said they would reach out to a peer counselor and direct them to the colleague they believed was struggling.
While more than half of respondents said they felt they had a sufficient work-life balance, the audit summary adds, many hoped for flexible scheduling to help manage stress. Nearly 50% are seeking better communication and more frequent visits from leadership, it adds.
Duggan announced plans in March for the audit, saying a significant reduction of on-site leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a "very serious problem."
The mayor vowed that the city would be providing mental health services for city firefighters who have endured additional strain in recent years after being cross-trained as medical first responders.
The limited scope audit sought to assess the level of leadership support staff perceived was provided by the fire and EMS divisions and the Detroit Fire Department's executive leadership teams.
More than 80% of those interviewed reported feeling comfortable raising ethical issues. That's evidence for leadership, it notes, "that not every part of the culture is broken."
Recommendations to change the program were made after investigation of the Boston Fire Department program and in consultation with the International Association of Firefighters.
"Designated persons ought to be given 60 days to investigate and construct the program with implementation for some time during the summer months of 2021," the report reads. "The vast majority of interviewees both DFD and EMS did not know about the City of Detroit's employee assistance program."
Detroit's City Council will have to consider and approve supplemental funding to support the changes.
In 2020, Detroit firefighters responded to 26,257 fire runs, and 22,508 emergency medical runs, according to figures cited in the audit.
The city started its Medical First Responder program in 2014. Before then, Detroit was one of the only major fire departments in the country without cross-trained firefighters. Detroit deployed its medical first responder companies over a two-and-a-half-year transition.
Separately, the department's Emergency Medical Service division paramedics responded to 134,232 medical runs in 2020.
The fire department has 917 firefighters and 266 EMS workers and 94% of the overall 1,183-member staff are men.
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