Sun City firefighters were just starting the process of establishing a peer support team when they suddenly needed one themselves.
“We were looking for in-house volunteers to be part of it when we lost one of our own,” said Jerry Thompson, a Sun City firefighter who has been working on the project.
When Shane Godbehere died last summer in station, the whole Sun City Fire and Medical Department was devastated, so much so that the peer support team was shelved while members turned to other resources to ease their grief.
As the year went on, firefighters slowly got back to the task of forming the support group. Then some were called to the scene of a five-fatality vehicle accident in north Peoria near Loop 303 and the effort ran into another bump in the road.
But Thompson said establishing the support group in SCFMD is back on track. From just two certified volunteer counselors, the Sun City department now has 16 volunteers either certified or going through training.
Starting from scratch
Historically, there has been a lack of emphasis on the need for traumatic event counseling services. Subsequently these services have been underfunded within the industry, according to Matt Licardi, Arizona Fire & Medical Authority peer support team lead.
There was a time when firefighters simply “sucked it up” by dealing with trauma they saw around them with their own resolve or by talking with other shift members in the fire house. But as firefighters deal with more traumatic incidents, the need for counseling grows.
“Removing the stigma surrounding the need for these services and legislative changes, such as the Craig Tiger Act, have brought this issue to the forefront,” Licardi said.
The Craig Tiger Act is an Arizona law that seeks to provide the best possible care for front-line employees who experience traumatic events. It is named after Phoenix Police Officer Craig Tiger, who committed suicide two years after he shot and killed Timothy O’Brien.
While traumatic event counseling services are a critical and necessary resource for the health and safety of personnel, the legislative changes created mandates that do not include a dedicated funding source, Licardi said. That makes it difficult for fire districts, which struggle with funding because of state limits, an issue municipal fire departments do not always face.
Peer support groups are fairly new to the equation, especially for small departments with limited funding.
Search for funds
Glendale Fire Department is one of the busiest fire departments in the U.S., receiving more than 44,000 calls each year – about 120 calls each day. In 2019, GFD was identified as a department in need of mental health tools and support, according to Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona, which assisted the department with a $43,000 grant to develop a peer support and counseling program to address this critical issue.
The program trained 20 firefighters to recognize trauma and how to approach colleagues when they have experienced trauma to urge them to seek further support. The grant also provided funds for an on-staff doctor available to meet with firefighters and their families when they need further support.
In the program’s first year, 20% of Glendale’s firefighters met with the counselor.
“The firefighters have absolutely responded so well to it,” said Dr. Tania Glenn, the on-site counselor serving GFD.
Peoria Fire Department also has a peer support group, according to Capt. David Arreguin.
“(The group consists of) trained individuals who can point members in the right direction, pending the situation,” he explained. “They also contact individuals after high-stress incidents, like drowning, codes, fires with fatalities, etc.”
They also have access to counselors who specialize in first responder-related issues.
“All encounters are confidential,” Arreguin said.
SCFMD also has access to other resources, including Fire Strong and Tanya Glen, a counselor based in Texas but with an office in Peoria, according to Thompson. They can also turn to Mental Health Centers of America, he added.
But it is that face-to-face support from others who deal with similar issues that can help the most, according to Thompson.
“They’ve seen it, they’ve experienced it, they know what you are going trough,” he said.
This kind of counseling and others are critical for firefighters, who are at high risk for suicide.
According to a 2021 Homeland Security report to Congress, there is currently no national data concerning suicide rates of firefighters who are repeatedly exposed to trauma that impacts their mental health and wellness. However, the United States Firefighters Association is directed to collect and maintain such data and report on firefighter suicides.
But a 2018 study by the Ruderman Family Foundation — a nonpartisan, philanthropic organization advocating “for and advance the inclusion of people with disabilities” — revealed firefighters across the U.S. statistically are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty. In 2017, there were at least 103 firefighter suicides and, in contrast, 93 firefighters killed in the line of duty.
“Suicide is a result of mental illness, including depression and PTSD, which stems from constant exposure to death and destruction,” the foundation study stated, adding that firefighters die by suicide at “a considerably higher rate” (18 per 100,000) than the general population (13 per 100,000).
While peer support groups are filling a void, there are still gaps to close, according to Licardi.
“The Craig Tiger Act specifically covers sworn firefighters and peace officers, but does not cover civilian EMS personnel, such as EMTs and paramedics that run on the same calls,” Licardi said. “Our program has developed a peer support team and includes partnerships with several agencies to provide access to necessary resources for fire, EMS and administrative personnel.”
In addition, the AFMA program specifically focuses on healthy coping mechanisms and the resources available, he added.
Through their employee assistance program provider, AFMA officials provide an increased number of confidential sessions for EMS personnel for on-the-job incidents, but this is still a reduced number from the employer covered sessions required for fire personnel, Licardi said.
News Editor Rusty Bradshaw can be reached at email@example.com. We’d like to invite our readers to submit their civil comments, pro or con, on this issue. Email AZOpinions@iniusa.org.
Editor’s Note: Glendale Independent News Editor Steve Stockmar contributed to this story.
Rusty Bradshaw is a 40-year veteran of community journalism, having worked at newspapers in Wyoming, Oregon and Arizona. He has been with Independent Newsmedia 15 years.
Rusty earned a junior college certificate from Northwest College in Powell, Wyoming and a bachelor of science degree from Eastern Oregon University in LaGrande Oregon.
An avid football fan, Rusty also enjoys photography, reading, spending time outdoors and enjoying life with his wife. He also authored three books of fiction, “The Rehabilitation of Miss Little,” “Moist on the Mountain” and "Gorge Justice." Visit www.rustythewriter.org.