Chances are, if you serve in the capacity of a First Responder, you have heard a lot lately about PTSD. Terms like ‘Critical Incident Stress Management’ (CISM), ‘critical incident stress debriefing’ (CISD), and ‘crisis response’ have been circulating heavily for the past 15 years. Acting in the capacity of a First Responder exposes people to extreme circumstances and events. Whether it is a one-time event or it compounds over time, psychological trauma is a very real enemy to first responders. In order to mitigate traumatic incidents, debriefing teams have been developed by agencies to offer their crews an outlet following a tragic event. However, how effective have those teams been? Moreover, most protocols only require a CISD following an isolated event with unusual circumstances. What about the damage occurring from the daily grind of serving on the front lines? Thankfully people are taking notice that something needs to change and hence, the First Responder Peer Support Team has gained popularity.
In recent years, the negative and many times fatal effect of stress, both long term and induced from one incident, have brought administrations around the globe to a frightening reality. Who helps the heroes society turns to for help? Law enforcement, Emergency Medical Services, Firefighters, and Corrections Officers all suffer from high rates of depression, stress-related disease processes, alcoholism and addictions, divorce, and suicides. Long hours, odd shifts, multiple jobs, forced OT, stressful daily interactions, low pay, the proverbial “revolving door” of the justice system, and the epidemic of drug overdoses all play a part to tax those serving in frontline positions. Hollywood depicts these workers as reaching a crisis point following a dramatic and horrific event, but many times it is due to accumulation from daily triggers. Agencies, specifically a core group of concerned individuals, better known as peers, have worked to develop a system that offers support to First Responders before that person reaches a crisis point. Many times, when intervention takes place or help is offered, it comes too late. A Peer Support Team is not a group of strangers but consists of people who have walked in your shoes. They understand exactly what it takes to clock in every day, knowing you may face a myriad of bad things.
In most agencies in the not-so-distant past, upon obtaining employment, part of your orientation material would include a brochure detailing how to get anonymous help for depression. Not much was said, but chances are you quickly realized reaching out for that help may very well be the end of your career. Admitting you needed help and were struggling was a sign of weakness. Even as the Critical Incident Stress Debriefing concept grew in popularity, nothing was actively being done to deal with the day to day stress encountered by a First Responder. Everything was a reaction; nothing was done proactively. With the increased awareness of First Responder’s suffering from PTSD, it became apparent the very people society depends on were drowning. Instead of waiting for that one, worse than usual call to break out the CISD, peer support groups developed. Acting as check in points for responders, these peer groups were not looked upon with suspicion. They contained faces of co-workers, past and present. Respected individuals who had made the sacrifices themselves and worked helping others in their times of need. Attention was being paid to how the employee was doing overall, not just what their job performance scores indicated.
Thankfully, many valid resources exist today that aid agencies in developing a peer support program that works for their employees. Badge of Life Canada has a guidebook that management can use to identify their particular group needs and steps to implement¹. The First Responder Support Network offers retreats and a host of resources to first responders and their families². Peer Support Central has courses to help you create a program tailored to your departments needs³. These programs along with others can provide your agency with a game plan. Every department is different, and every field faces different threats. However, the one thing in common is that every First Responder deserves to be given the best resources to not only excel on the job but have a quality life off the clock.
If you are responsible for a group of First Responders, you do your best to provide them with the newest and most efficient equipment. You try to ensure their physical safety by implementing safety measures. Many of you even fight legislation that threatens hard-earned pensions. However, what about the emotional and mental precautions? We can no longer turn a blind eye to our brothers and sisters who are struggling to keep their heads above water. Reach out to one of the resources listed above. Research what agencies in your area are doing to develop a peer support system. Ask your people what would be genuinely helpful to them in carrying the load.
Serving as a First Responder is a difficult job. Yes, it has its rewards. However, it also takes a lot from the people who serve. It is time we create a real framework of support for our people. Frontline Responder Services is a great resource for first responders interested in peer support. Not only does our first responder program offer a peer-driven approach to treatment, but our staff of clinically trained first responders provide invaluable training to all first responders, agencies, organizations, and administrations. We offer a variety of existing training programs or will customize a training to fit your specific needs. If you are interested in more information, please contact me at JohnB@SproutHealthGroup.com or 215-833-1572.
John C. Becker Jr., MHS-C, CTR
John Becker Jr. has experience as a police officer, clinician, and outreach professional. John also possesses a personal understanding of substance abuse among first responders, having overcome addiction in his own life. He is the Director of First Responder Services, for Advanced Health and Education (www.advhealth.com) and was instrumental in developing and implementing Frontline Responder Services (www.frontlinerehab.com). John is an active member of the Montgomery County (PA) Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) Team and certified by the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation (ICISF) for individual and group interventions. John is a Certified Trauma Responder (CTR) and board member for the Association of Traumatic Stress Specialists (ATSS). He is also a member of the Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA) and the National Police Suicide Foundation. John continues to provide training to agencies and organizations, throughout the country, on topics such as stress, trauma, suicide, and addiction, as they relate to first responders. He can be contacted at JohnB@SproutHealthGroup.com or 215-833-1572.