Whether responding to a suicide, a fatal accident or a murder, first responders may need a helping hand to get through the trauma.
Or it could just be a need to talk about struggles at home.
No matter the reason, a support team is in place that is giving Wood County first responders someone to talk to when the job takes a toll on health, marriage, family and careers.
“We have to take care of ourselves to take care of other,” it says on the Wood County First Responder Support website.
The team offers confidential, peer-to-peer support for local firemen, EMS and law enforcement.
Scott Frank, a detective with the Bowling Green Police Division, was instrumental in starting the group. It has been in place for about 18 months.
When putting it together, he thought it was a unique program – then discovered there are programs of this sort throughout the state.
“We kind of reinvented the wheel before we realized the wheel existed,” Frank said. “There’s research out there that shows peer-to-peer communication and support is more effective to get someone to open up.”
“Especially police and fire, we’re typically Type A personality and it is hard for us to open up. There’s a huge stigma associated with being able to open and talk to someone.”
That need for help doesn’t usually come up in roll call, Frank added.
The team’s goal is to break down that stigma.
Katie Underwood, director of emergency services at Wood County Hospital, said law enforcement may be first on the scene, then EMS, and then the person is brought to the ER.
Trauma in the ER has included the death of a child as well as a young sick female.
“It was tough for all of us to cope and process. After one of those incidences, we tend to go right back to normal business,” said Underwood, who has been at that job for six years.
The hospital did a debriefing and invited other agencies in, and that led her to be invited into the team.
“We realized that a lot of time our struggles overlap … we have a lot of relationships with these guys – we see them a lot in the ER,” Underwood said.
Lt. Ryan Patton, with the Bowling Green Fire Division, got involved to help himself and others.
“The biggest thing for me is breaking the stigma of asking for help is an embarrassment,” Patton said.
He wants to make it comfortable for people to talk.
Frank is his go-to guy when Patton struggles with things that eat away at him.
“This stuff actually does work, to get more people to open up … to talk about it, you’re not broke,” Patton said.
Frank said the team’s website allows access to local first responders to search for a peer to talk to. Sometimes he will approach someone if he sees they are struggling.
“Somebody’s who’s having issues might find someone they can relate with better than somebody else,” Frank said.
There are currently 17 peers on the list, encompassing, police, fire, dispatch, corrections, ER,and EMS.
Underwood said that personal stress also is a topic discussed.
“Everybody has their own personal struggles and a lot of times somebody else has been through something similar,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be a work-related incident.”
Frank explained how they were starting to work to get the team organized when a BG firefighter committed suicide in late 2017.
“That really drove home the need for this program,” he said. “It was a huge catalyst. People locally realized this stuff is an issue.”
They work closely with the state’s Fraternal Order of Police, and that is where they went through Assisting Individuals in Crisis training as well as the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation Inc. Each program was two days.
Training included active listening, self care and awareness, Patton said. He said his weak point was active listening.
Underwood said they had to learn to not give advice.
“We’re not clinicians so we’re not diagnosing anyone,” she said.
The intent is to listen and encourage, Frank said. He said it has been hard for him not to give advice.
Patton said it is a relief that he doesn’t have to give advice; it takes the pressure off him because he isn’t there to fix anyone.
Frank didn’t have numbers of the people that they have helped but guessed in the last three months he has talked to a dozen people.
They started out in Wood County but have helped in other counties.
An example is the recent fatal shooting of Toledo Police Officer Anthony Dia. The Wood County team offered to help but didn’t intrude, Frank said.
Patton described another situation where someone stopped by the fire station just to say hi, and within 10 minutes it had turned into a peer discussion. The conversation lasted 90 minutes.
“It can happen anytime,” said Patton, who has been with the department 20 years.
He said they know when to reach out for additional resources.
“We all know our limits as a peer. When our limits are reached, it is our job to find them the resources for definitive care,” Patton said.
The team works with NAMI and the Wood County Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services board that offer professional help.
There also are peers in Perrysburg Township, Rossford and Bowling Green State University.
Frank, who has been with BGPD for nearly 14 years, wants the program continues to grow.
“Hopefully, it gets bigger.”
The website is https://www.woodcountyfirst.com/.