Ind. fire dept. develops PTSD peer support network

The Anderson Fire Department developed a peer support network with about 20 firefighters and EMS providers available to help anyone struggling with PTSD

By Laura Arwood
The Herald Bulletin

ANDERSON, Ind. — When disaster approaches, 911 is the first line of defense. While first responders show up to fires, car accidents or crime scenes and handle the public's emergencies, dealing with personal trauma is a different matter.

The Anderson Fire Department has developed a peer support network with about 20 firefighters and EMS, retirees and spouses available to help anyone in the department struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, mental illness or suicidal thoughts.

This wasn't always the case. In 2015, a string of DUIs among the ranks of AFD caused Cody Leever, president of the local firefighters union IAFF 1262, to recognize that some of his peers were struggling.

"It wasn't the guys who had a reputation of coming off of a shift and hitting the bars," he said. "It was young guys, guys without a history of this. These were guys who I came up with. I was like, 'What's the deal? Something's not right here.'"

Nearly half of firefighters struggle with alcohol abuse, and more have died in the past three years by suicide than in the line of duty. One hundred seven U.S. firefighters died by suicide and 93 died in the line of duty, according to an April 2018 study by the Ruderman Family Foundation.

Leever approached the AFD administration about employee assistance for the struggling firefighters and his concerns were dismissed. He decided to take it into his own hands.

"The administration was kind of like, 'Eh,'" he recalled. "I was actually trying to do a little bit of PR cleanup at the time. We had one guy get a DUI and (was) in a wreck.

"Why are we punishing this guy?" he asked. "It's not going to help. He needs actual help."

Leever went to fellow firefighter Skip Ockomon, a recovering alcoholic, for assistance. Ockomon knows the dangers of ignoring PTSD. He lost two friends in the fire service to suicide.

Shortly after one friend took his own life in 2000, Ockomon noticed another friend struggling.
"I told him, 'Please don't do what (he) did,'" he said. "And my buddy told me, 'Do you really think I'd do that to my family?' He committed suicide not long after that, in 2001."

Ockomon and Leever, with the assistance of the Anderson Center, brought a Crisis Intervention Management course to Anderson. A dozen took the course in 2015, and the education has only grown since then.

About two years ago, firefighter James Harless took an interest in the peer support group and began leading the training sessions.

"I went to the training and I really took a liking to it," he said. "I've been affected by a lot of the things we were talking about. I've been divorced. I identified with it."

Harless said the department offers safeTALK training, a suicide prevention program, and Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) for anyone who is interested. Fire Chief Dave Cravens allows his staff to take time off to attend training programs.

"One of the concerns when we started this was if we'd have any resistance," Harless said. "Are the old guys going to call you the tissue team? Or the crybaby team? I think our team has been absolutely ready for it."

After a "critical call"—a call which includes a death—the personnel who were on scene will meet to diffuse the situation. If the incident was particularly difficult, outside counselors will come in to speak with the team.

While the emergency responders handle tragedy every day, some calls weigh heavily on the mind. Leever said two girls died in a fire about a decade ago, which he considers his worst day on the job.

"That's by far the worst run I've ever been on," he said. "The kids are always the ones that affect you the most. There was nothing we could have done, we knew that. There are some things you don't get used to."

Cravens said he thinks fostering the support group and training is not only the responsible thing to do, but something he wishes he could have done years ago with old friends.

"I wish I would have done this or done that or talk to them," he said. "I didn't know. Now we have the right resources. There are so many places you can go and people to talk to. You don't need to be embarrassed and you can get that genuine help you need."

Copyright 2019 The Herald Bulletin

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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