Friday, February 22, 2019

Fire personnel learn about PTS, depression, substance abuse


Fort Belvoir FES First Responder Team

The peer support team turned a year old in March and was created for first responders to support each other’s mental and behavioral health, said Belvoir firefighter Jonathan Lang.

Lang set up the class and the peer support team, in conjunction with Fort Myer Fire and Emergency Services. He said they wanted to have training on supporting peers and noticing warning signs. People who want to volunteer on the peer support team had to take the class, but the class was also open to those not on the team.

Attendees learned strategies, including active listening and non-verbal communication skills needed to support and foster positive relationships with coworkers.

Introducing peer support methods was sparked after a firefighter within the department committed suicide a few years ago, Lang said.

“Nobody saw the signs and symptoms of it. Nobody knew how to talk about it after it happened,” he said, adding he thinks it could have been prevented, if there had been training in place then.

Creating the support team also stemmed from Lang’s own recovery from substance abuse, he said.

“I almost slipped through the cracks, and I almost died because no one knew about it,” he said. “My big thing is that I didn’t want to see another brother or sister fall through the cracks.”

He wanted to prevent another catastrophic event from happening within the department.

The statistics on first responder suicides are staggering and may come as a surprise to people who don’t understand that first responders also struggle with mental health, he said. In 2017, Lang said, citing statistics from the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance, there were 130 firefighter suicides, 140 law enforcement suicides and 129 suicides in the U.S. Army.

“A firefighter, law enforcement officer or paramedic, if they are lucky, has a 30-year career,” he said. “But, they come across a lot of crisis situations and the horrible stuff that they see throughout that 30-year career takes a toll.” As a result, many turn to self-medicating. There’s also stigma about asking for help, because people worry about not being seen as strong or that others might see them as being unable to perform their job duties.

“When you are reaching out for help, you are the strongest you have ever been in your entire life,” Lang said.

Lang said he’s open about his personal struggles because it might give others the courage to talk about their own.

Through the class, first responders are “learning how to have that uncomfortable conversation with somebody,” he said, adding it teaches people how to see others as human, with feelings and emotions.

The classes don’t teach people how to be counselors, but teaches them how to be peers and support each other, Lang said.

The peer support team has two fire chaplains who are there to help others with spiritual crises, Lang said. The department also has the Employee Assistance Program, and department officers, including fire captains, battalion chiefs, and assistant chiefs, are on the team and completely support the program.

Having the support of leadership and management is essential to make the program work, he said. No matter the rank, everyone benefits from the training.

Going forward, Lang would like to have more involvement from other agencies outside of the fire and emergency services that also have first responders.

“We’re consistently improving it and adding new things,” he said, adding the program is constantly evolving. “We’re really proud of it.”

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