Pelham police, fire departments promote peer support

Published 2:44 pm Tuesday, November 20, 2018

PELHAM – Area firefighters, police officers and paramedics were among the first responders at peer support training classes from Nov. 15-17, discussing the effects of trauma on first responders.

Often times when 911 is dialed, the caller is relying on first responders to ease their fears, to come to the rescue, to save a life and to be there when they are needed. They tend to be among the first to reach out to disaster survivors and provide emotional and physical support to them. But when the dust settles, who do first responders turn to after working fatal wrecks or shootings? Who do they talk to about the traumas they experience on the job?

It is estimated that 30 percent of first responders develop behavioral health conditions including, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), compared with 20 percent in the general population, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. In a study about suicide, firefighters were reported to have higher attempt and ideation rates than the general population. In law enforcement, estimates suggest between 125 and 300 police officers commit suicide every year.

To combat these statistics, Pelham’s fire and police departments are teaching first responders about peer support. PPD officer Adam Schniper, a certified peer support specialist, said peer support is just a fancy way to say that they talk to each other about whatever they’re going through.

“We can talk and understand each other,” Schniper said. “We don’t have to explain what a wreck looked like because we already know. We know and trust each other. The things that we experience are not easy to talk about, but it helps when you have someone who knows exactly what you’re going through. It’s a mechanism for first responders to stay strong and healthy together.”

The peer support training sessions, held at the Pelham Recreation Center, were sponsored by Bradford Health Services and taught by an advocacy group called FORMLL. First responders from Blount County, Pell City, Hoover, Mountain Brook, Alabaster and Pelham attended the three-day training.

Michael McLemore, executive director and founder of FORMLL and a 20-year Army veteran, and consultant Phil Rogers led the courses, teaching those in attendance about active listening, apathy versus empathy, suicide and how to recognize signs of mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and PTSD.

“This training is vital for sustaining the long-term health of first responders and their families,” McLemore said. “Because whatever they experience on the job, they take home to their families.”

Pelham firefighter Jim Terrell said the goal is to catch emotional distress before it progresses to the point of critical mental health issues. A certified peer support specialist is not a counselor or therapist. If a peer sees that someone needs care from a professional, they will assist that person with getting the help needed.

For a long time, Rogers said first responders kept everything to themselves, believing they had to “just suck it up.” The idea of peer support is a relatively new idea among first responders but they’re not the only ones utilizing the method. Peer support is also used among those diagnosed with diseases such as cancer and others struggling with addiction and mental illness.

Terrell and Schniper thanked Police Chief Larry Palmer and Fire Chief Tim Honeycutt for promoting peer support and allowing opportunities for first responders to learn more about it.