Wash. FD joins county peer support program working to reduce mental health stigmas
The Tumwater Fire Department joins the Thurston County Peer Support Consortium, helping FFs with stress and traumatic incidents
By Ty Vinson
TUMWATER, Wash. — Tumwater Fire Chief Brian Hurley is joining a countywide mission to show it’s OK for firefighters, EMTs and other frontline workers to talk about their mental health.
It’s being done through the Peer Support Program, a confidential opportunity to debrief with colleagues.
Hurley and Rian Winter, lead of the Peer Support Group and EMS lieutenant, gave a presentation to the Tumwater Public Health and Safety Committee on July 11. Tumwater will be the next city to join the program, which Winter said most cities in Thurston County already participate in.
There are 46 firefighters and EMS employees in Tumwater, and the goal is to have eight of them be trained in peer support. Two people per shift will go through a total of 24 hours of training with professional mental health counselors and other trainers involved in peer networking, and they’ll receive yearly continuing education.
“As a volunteer when I started you didn’t talk about mental health,” Hurley said. “When we did, it was in the context of critical incident stress debriefing. It wasn’t bad, but it was kind of a forced process and people were reluctant to participate and share in those settings. This is an effort to create more direct contact with an individual who has a shared experience.”
Hurley said the city will adopt a policy that gives the on-duty battalion chief the guidance and resources to handle a situation that calls for peer support. It could be a situation such as three units being called to an incident and one needing to be pulled out to de-stress and unwind.
“Everybody has a backpack, and over time running these calls and incidents, your backpack starts to fill up,” Hurley said. “For some people it overflows, and they have to unpack some of that.”
Hurley said the public has been asking him for some time about what they offer department members — past and present — in terms of support, including mental health. He said Tumwater has always provided some degree of support, including connecting people to local psychologists and chaplains, and the official critical incident stress debriefings. But more support is needed, he said.
The program was kicked off at the beginning of the year by Hillory Flowers, Lacey Fire’s assistant chief of health and safety. Hurley said it’s been supported by the local branch of the International Association of Fire Fighters, and it’s garnered a lot of public support.
Winter described the program, which exists nationwide, as firefighters helping firefighters. He said those who have similar lived experiences are more likely to open up to one another. They may not have been on the same call, but they most likely experienced one similar.
“On a global level, it’s reducing barriers to mental health and changing the culture to accept that mental health is important and it’s not a taboo word,” Winter said. “It’s something that we need to talk about, and if you speak to it, it’s okay to know that others around you are struggling and we can all pick each other up and move forward.”
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Hurley said he thinks the department has for a long time done a good job on the physical health side, but there’s been an increased effort in the last few years to better resources for mental health. He said it’s an important issue to tackle not only for the wellbeing of employees, but for the city as a whole because post-traumatic stress is considered a presumptive illness under the worker’s compensation statute.
Winter told the Tumwater council the countywide system allows for a larger pool of peers. If someone in Tumwater doesn’t feel comfortable speaking with someone they see every day, they can speak with someone else in Thurston County or even Pierce County. The program works with a pool of therapists trained in PTSD and working with first responders, and there are options for those who end up needing treatment for mental health issues or substance abuse.
Winter said a few members have already used the program.
He said the Balance Program run by Lee Brooks, wife of Lacey’s fire chief, helps support families of those in treatment programs, ensuring children get to school and playdates, as well as have enough food in the house.
And Hurley said he wants to do better at connecting with retired members of the department. He said they keep up with a number of retirees, but the ones they don’t hear from are the ones who likely need community the most. The station is hosting a retiree event in August during Brewfest.
Hurley said there’s a local group called the Metro Firehouse 5 group for fire retirees to gather in Olympia. He said they work on restoring fire equipment and it has become a communal space over the years.
Hurley and Tumwater spokesperson Ann Cook talked about a shift in culture at the department, especially among younger, newer members, who are engaged in the topic of mental and physical wellbeing.
“Every firefighter has one call that sticks with them eventually,” Cook said. “They’ll work through it, but it’s always on their mind. It could be early in their career, it could be late. It’s unique to every person, so having an opportunity or culture that’s more open to helping people through those incidents, I’m excited to see what the future looks like for our young firefighters.”
Peer support is available to current and former firefighters and their families. Find a list of peer supporters and make arrangements for private counseling at https://tcpeersupport.com/.