Help for the helpers
When firefighters are asked why they chose their profession, most — regardless of the route they took to get there — say they wanted to help people.
But sometimes firefighters, no matter how brave and tough, also need help, which is why a group within Gresham Fire and Emergency Services started a Peer Support Program.
"We love our job and love serving this community. We just needed to create resources to allow us to process everything," said Gresham firefighter Chandra Holestine. "Being a firefighter is an honor, but it comes at a cost."
The idea of firefighters helping firefighters isn't new, and it was a department in Salem that sparked the idea for Holestine. When her husband joined the Salem Fire Department, she was happy to learn about the peer support program in place.
"When I heard about that, as a wife, I thought, 'Thank God he has someone,'" Holestine said.
But within her own department in Gresham, nothing was available. Three years ago, the usual stresses at home were compounded by a critical call that left her feeling overwhelmed with everything firefighters face.
"I wasn't brave enough to tell someone I was struggling," admitted Holestine, who has been with the department for three years.
So she decided to develop a program in Gresham that would take the pressure off firefighters to bear their problems alone.
The Peer Support Team is a voluntary and confidential resource for all department members and their families. Peer supporters are trained to be effective listeners and provide feedback, clarify issues and assist co-workers in finding solutions. When needed, the peer supporter can refer their colleague to mental health professionals or other outside resources.
"There is a stigma surrounding needing help," said Lt. Julie McAllister with the Peer Support Team. "People recognize PTSD for military and soldiers, but not always with firefighters."
Taking on trauma
For Lt. Lloyd Nickson, a 20-year veteran with Gresham Fire, his own struggles led him to the support group.
"I remember needing a number to call, but having nothing available," he said. "I didn't want others to go through the same things I had alone."
Conceptualization for the program began three years ago. The founders met with Gresham Fire Fighters Local 1062 chapter, former Fire Chief Greg Matthews and representatives with the city to find out what each group wanted from the program. To their surprise, the stated needs and desires lined up, and the program developed with a swell of early support.
"We were nervous about coming out with this idea," Holestine said.
Firefighters' work constantly exposes them to disturbing and lingering images and situations. They go on calls involving children in emergencies, shootings, fires raging out of control, car wrecks, and much more. Gresham Fire deals with upwards of 18,000 calls a year.
The emotional aftermath of traumatic calls, often lead to depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. Busy schedules not leaving time to decompress causes even more difficulties.
"Part of the problem is not knowing when the calls will come," said McAllister, who has been with Gresham Fire for a dozen years. "You can go from drinking coffee one second, to pulling a kid out of a fire the next."
Holestine and Nickson put together a presentation about the new program and went to each station about two years ago, meeting with the crews and sharing information about the group. They built upon a level of comfort and family environment within every segment of Gresham Fire.
From the beginning they wanted to let firefighters select members of the program, with the only guidelines being firefighters with good people skills and strong understanding of confidentiality. Those selected received extra training and serve as the first point of contact.
The team currently has eight firefighters, spread out across the three shifts. Supporters are from several stations, span rank and have a wide range of seniority with the department.
"Our team represents the department as a whole," Nickson said.
For their efforts in founding the group, both Holestine and Nickson were given the Exceptional Service Award during a recent Gresham Fire and Emergency Services ceremony.
"It lets people know they aren't crazy," Holestine noted. "As firefighters, it feels like we should be able to control our own lives — but that isn't always the case."
Two steps forward
One important step for the Peer Support Program was bringing in a new dedicated fire department chaplain — a position that had been vacant for almost two decades.
Jeffrey Durbin had spent almost three decades as chaplain with the Gresham Police Department. After retiring, he got a call from Holestine asking him to bring his services to Gresham Fire. It was an easy decision, as Gresham Fire already considered him an honorary member.
"As a police officer, I had developed good relationships with the fire department," Durbin said. "I am honored to have been asked, and it feels right to be here."
Durbin, who is beloved for his home-baked cookies, is now bouncing around to the different stations to chat with firefighters. Sometimes the conversations are about whatever comes to mind, from sports to vacation plans. Other times, Durbin helps the men and women address the difficult things they witness on the job.
"Every time I come in, they sit down and chat for about an hour," he said. "I have been impressed at how things have gone so far. These guys are so important to me, I want to be there for them."
The consensus is the Peer Support Program has created a culture where it's OK for firefighters to admit something is bothering them.
"You can't un-see what you've seen," Durbin said. "It's there forever."
The program provides tools firefighters can incorporate into their daily lives at the stations to make things better. One coping mechanism involves stopping negative mental issues before they build momentum and become larger problems by following small, doable tasks.
The five-step recovery model includes: talking with somebody about what happened, exercising, maintaining a good diet, watching something funny or finding a way to laugh, and doing something therapeutic after your shift — preferably in nature — with someone you care about.
Program leaders have enlisted third-party clinicians and professionals to provide further resources and training as needed. Stephanie Conn, a licensed psychologist, came up with training modules to empower the firefighters. The program also has a list of clinicians who specialize in working with firefighters. The growing list is easy to access, with the focus on finding trained professionals in the many places Gresham firefighters call home. Those who serve in the department live all across the state, so organizers didn't want resources centralized in the Portland-region.
And though the group never expected such a strong, welcoming reaction, there are plans for future growth.
In April, the group plans to host a family event that will feature classes for spouses to learn how they can play an active role in the recovery of their loved ones after facing trauma. Resources like this will eventually be incorporated into training that takes place during the recruitment process.
The group also plans on turning the program into a nonprofit organization to allow it to raise funds and continue to support men and women of the department.
Gresham firefighters are becoming increasingly comfortable with the idea of asking for help, and thanks to the Peer Support Team, those working to protect the community now have people and resources to help protect them.
"We are here for each other," Holestine said.
Stresses of the job
The Federal Government listed firefighting as the most stressful occupation in the United States in 2018.
n 95 percent of firefighters reported experiencing critical stress on the job.
n 30 percent of firefighters will experience post-traumatic stress disorder.
n In 2016, 93 firefighters died in the line of duty from events such as on-the-job trauma and heart attacks.
n In 2017, 46.8 percent of firefighters said they experienced suicidal thoughts.
n Across the country, 103 firefighters died of suicide in 2016.
n More than 60 percent of firefighters reported sleeplessness, recurring and unwanted memories of events.
n More than 85 percent said it was a stigma of weakness that prevents them from asking for help.