Changing The 'Macho' Culture To Improve First Responders' Mental Health

Dec 18, 2019

First responders, dispatchers, correction officers and their families in the Tri-State are getting new tools to take care of themselves and their coworkers. The Hamilton County Fire Chief's Association is launching a program to encourage the creation of peer support teams.

Colerain Township Battalion Chief Steve Conn says in 2018 members of the association recognized the need for some type of mental health program for firefighters. He says they formed a board to deal with the issue. "Quickly that board realized that this topic is a lot bigger than anybody had originally estimated," he says.

Conn says mental health care isn't limited to firefighters and emergency medical technicians. He says police officers, deputies, corrections officers and dispatchers are also affected. "When we look at our men and women in blue… there's some estimates out there that over 300 first responders take their lives around the country each year. That number is just way too high. Our own region has seen no less than 10 first responder suicides in the last year or so."

He says nothing will shake an organization to the core like a suicide. Members start questioning their actions, their beliefs and themselves to the point where it undermines core values.

Conn says team members are taking peer support classes through the International Association of Firefighters, the International Council on Critical Incidents, or other certified programs. "There are a lot of organizations that don't have the means or the personnel available to form their own program. So we're sort of helping to coordinate these teams to become one big overarching team. For lack of a better term, (it's) peer support mutual aid," Conn says.

Mutual aid is when department in different jurisdictions pledge to assist each other in responding to an emergency. "We're trying to take care of each other," Conn says. "Let's say Cincinnati Police has a major incident going on, they're going to be busy. If they need help, we're going to be there for them, as the Tri-State regional peer support team. If somebody from Northern Kentucky needs help we'll be there for them as they will be there for us."

Evendale Firefighter Joshua Asbach says it's true that first responders run toward danger, while others are running away. "The men and women that I've had the pleasure of working with are very strong, but we also witness very traumatic scenes day to day. And that can take a toll on people." Asbach says that toll can manifest itself as post traumatic stress, depression, chemical dependency and/or relationship or marital problems.

Cincinnati Police have had a peer support team since the late 1990s, according to Officer Mike Glenn. He says the department increased training for the peer support volunteers in 2016, and then again this year. "We realized dispatchers, firefighters, other workers are also affected by critical incidents. So Cincinnati Police Department put together a critical incident management, consisting of police officers, mental health advisors, and pastors that all go out together. We talk to all that were involved. So that we can help them cope."

Peer support does include changing the culture of emergency services, according to Conn. "We have that macho, we're-always-fine, we'll-just-walk-it-off type mentality. As we continue to change this culture, we're going to see more people opening up and saying it's OK to talk about it."

Conn says unofficially, the peer support program has been running for about six months. During that time, he says there have been about 100 encounters with regional first responders. More than 70 have been referred to counselors or clinicians for professional help.