Peer supporters help local responders deal with tough calls

Huntington firefighter Jason Meier (right) works with firefighters (from left) Andrew Wust and George Markou to fold a hose onto a fire truck. Meier is executive director of the newly organized Indiana Public Safety Peer Support, which offers a listening ear to anyone involved in public service.
Huntington firefighter Jason Meier (right) works with firefighters (from left) Andrew Wust and George Markou to fold a hose onto a fire truck. Meier is executive director of the newly organized Indiana Public Safety Peer Support, which offers a listening ear to anyone involved in public service. Photo by Cindy Klepper.

Originally published July 17, 2017.

You may think the firefighter freeing your loved one from a mangled vehicle is a god.

He’s not.

Neither are the dispatcher who sent him out, or the police officer or the emergency medical technician also working the scene.

Sure, sometimes they go back to work unscathed and wait for the next call.

But sometimes that horrible thing that just happened eats at them.

“We’ve had some pretty tough hits on the fire department,” says Huntington Firefighter Jason Meier.

A debriefing takes place soon after a critical incident, but Meier says the responder is often still processing what happened.

“The two times I sat through a critical incident debriefing, it went terrible,” he says.

Some employers offer formal mental health assistance, but employees often wonder if seeking help will hamper their careers.

What those responders need, Meier says, is the opportunity to talk to someone who’s been in their shoes.

To help provide that, Meier spearheaded the organization of Indiana Public Safety Peer Support (IPSPS), and some 20 other local emergency responders quickly jumped aboard to help  provide support to their peers.

“A lot of us heard about it and said we wanted to be part of it,” says Mike Oberg, training director for Parkview EMS.

“I personally needed this program six years ago, and it didn’t exist,” Oberg says.

In addition to firefighters from Huntington, Andrews, Mt. Etna and Roanoke, the initial team of peer supporters includes representatives from Parkview Emergency Medical Service and police, Huntington County Dispatch and Huntington County Emergency Management Agency, Meier says.

“There was a lot of people thinking just like I was,” Meier says. “There was a need.”

They’ve all received training, and they’re available to all emergency responders in Huntington County. Several other counties have expressed an interest in the program, Meier says.

He believes the program is the first of its kind in Indiana.

“If there’s another, I couldn’t find them,” he says.

Meier, who serves as executive director of IPSPS, patterned the program after Illinois Fire Fighter Peer Support, which provided the training to the local peer supporters.

But, he says, while the Illinois organization serves only firefighters, “We wanted to be more inclusive.”

The program is open to anyone in the public service, their spouses and other family members, Meier says. If a call from the general public comes through, they’ll be referred to other resources.

Sometimes, Meier says, a responder will have an especially tough time with a call that results in a death — if he could have done more, he thinks, the person wouldn’t have died. It takes someone who’s been there to say, believably, “You did all you could.”

The peer support program will deal not only with what Parkview EMT Katie Adelman characterizes as “tough calls” — the kids, the fatalities encountered during working hours — but also issues that aren’t work-related, such as a divorce, a child having problems at school, the anniversary of a child’s death.

It’s the peer-to-peer support that’s important.

“It’s easier for me to talk to you on the same level,” Adelman says about talking with a peer. “You know where I’m coming from, and you just listen.”

“In a group setting, people aren’t willing to open up and vent,” Huntington Firefighter John Brewer says. “It makes you look weak.”

With more than 20 trained peer supporters, Meier says, there’s always going to be somebody who can make a connection — whether the caller wants to talk with someone of a specific gender, someone who works in a specific field or someone who’s gone through a similar incident.

Peer support team members deal in trust, Oberg says.

“No one will talk behind your back,” he says.

All conversations are informal and will remain confidential, he says. No records, other than the number of people assisted, will be kept.
“A lot of what we do is just listening,” Oberg says.

“We’re a compassionate listening ear,” Brewer adds.

Only if “red flags come up, if they’re telling people goodbye, if they’re talking about harming themselves,” will outside resources be brought in, Meier says.

Nationally, emergency responder suicides outnumber line-of-duty deaths, Meier says, although he says that trend has not played out locally.

Peer counseling can also help prevent what Brewer calls “self-medication” — drowning the problem in alcohol or drugs.

“Maybe we can help somebody before it gets out of control,” Meier says.

The current generation of emergency responders is more open to talking about their reactions to an incident than were those of past generations.

“The older generation used to say, ‘That’s just part of the job,’” Meier says.

“They’d say, ‘Suck it up and do the best you can,’” Oberg says.

“That’s not the most healthy way to deal with it,” Meier says. “This has made me share way more than I’ve ever been comfortable with.”

“We’re Type A’s,” Brewer says. “We’re problem solvers. We’re the fixers, but we’re the worst patients in the world.”

“Call us,” Meier says. “We’re here. If you want this, we’re available.”

Emergency responders who can use a peer supporter should call 855-44-SUPPORT and leave a message, Meier says. Someone will respond within an hour.

The program also has a website, ipsps.org, and a presence on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

IPSPS is also working on a program to support spouses of emergency responders, Oberg says.

A responder’s inability to deal with an incident can affect his family life, Brewer says, and the responder is often reluctant to talk about it with a spouse.

“They (spouses) don’t see what we see,” Brewer says. “The coping mechanism’s not there. We’re bad communicators when it comes to talking to our spouses.”

“We don’t want to lay it on them,” Meier adds.

IPSPS has received funding from several Huntington County fire departments, the City of Huntington and the Huntington County Commissioners.

Additional grants have been provided by North Central Co-op Inc. and the Land O’Lakes Foundation Inc.

The program has also been awarded 501(c)(3) status as a non-profit organization, allowing it to accept tax-deductible donations.

Potential contributors can call Meier at 450-7465.