November 26, 2018
Article By: Kelly Hall, Development Coordinator of ICISF
Giving Thanks to the Howard County Department of Fire Rescue Services Peer Support Team
This time of year is when we like to highlight some of our local CISM/Peer Support Teams and all of the individuals on the team that help other peers in their department and the community on a daily basis. This year we’ve decided to highlight a local peer support team right in our own backyard. I had the amazing opportunity to sit down and speak with firefighters Gamaliel Baer (Health & Wellness Coordinator) and Debra Jenkins (A-Shift Team Lead), as well as Lieutenant Keegan Tozaki (B-Shift Assistant Team Lead), who are a part of the Howard County Department of Fire Rescue Services Peer Support Team. Their personal stories of being on the team and the difference that they have made when responding after critical incidents are incredible and I am so happy to be able to share their teams history and story of why they continue to help others.
Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue Services has been active in critical incident stress management for a long time because Dr. Jeff Mitchell (ICISF Founder) served as a volunteer paramedic there. The team recently transitioned to a peer support team model. Chief Chaplain Steve Stone is considered a patriarch of the peer support team, as he has served over 30 years with the fire department and is a program administrator alongside firefighter Baer. Their team is part of the Bureau of Occupational Safety & Health (BOSH) and currently consists of 34 active members who are full time career within the fire department, but volunteer to hold an additional responsibility as a peer support team member.
I asked the team members why they changed from a CISM team to a peer support team recently. They said that they became a peer support team to include prevention efforts along with response efforts. They found that individuals often feel less pressured talking to peers informally, compared to formal CISM team interactions. The viewpoint of people in the department continues to change as there is more awareness now regarding critical incident stress and talking to other peers is becoming a more natural reaction. They have even found that not only are newer recruits of the fire department more responsive to mental health and attend training as a recruit, but even the veteran firefighters are starting to reach out to the team for help.
So what makes this peer support team unique? The entire fire department is comprised of roughly 1,000 career, volunteer, and civilians, and their peer support team responds to all members of the department. With about 500 career personnel, most of the fire department knows each other, which makes it more personal. Their peer support team is volunteer-based and there is no rank structure (a lieutenant or chief can answer to a firefighter). Additionally, all team members have signed a confidentiality agreement (agreed upon by their union and administrative office), which add more professionalism and shows trust from the department in this team.
Their peer support team has a group of team members for each fire department shift (A, B, C) and within each shift they have a team lead and two assistants. The team gets activated from direct requests within the fire department; when individuals approach a peer team member (peer to peer); or if an outside agency requests support. They can also get activated through the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems (MIEMMS).
As both a CISM/Peer Support team, they have responded to large-scale critical incidents such as the Naval Yard & Columbia Mall shootings and hurricane deployment to the Keys in Florida. Since becoming a peer support team, they have noticed a higher volume of interactions with individuals who are seeking information or help. This year alone, the team was activated for many difficult critical incidents, including a line of duty death.
The team members often need to unwind after helping their peers and families of peers. The good news is that after each activation, the team members debrief with one another in order to help each other and offer advice in certain situations that some might not have experienced in the past. They even have a furry friend, Tilly, (owned by Lt. Tozaki) who is trained to help firefighters recover after a difficult call.
I asked the team members why they decided to join the peer support team. Lt. Tozaki said that after a critical incident, you can’t require individuals to talk to you. “I felt I was chosen for this team, as some individuals trust me enough to talk to me. I am friends to most in the department and wanted to learn the tools and techniques to help others within the department.” Debbie said that she had faced tough challenges personally and talking to people and having support helped her immensely. She feels chosen for this as she has gone through those experiences and can relate to others seeking help. Gamaliel said, “I wanted to make sure our members had the best support they could get.”
The firefighters have a phrase they sometime say, “firefighter first, then victim, then property.” For these firefighters, I asked why CISM was so important in their field. They said one, longevity – they would like to work for 20 years and still be able to respond to calls. They want to be both physically and mentally healthy at the end of the day when they go home to their loved ones and families and not bring their work home with them. Two, they would like to eventually retire and survive their profession; not let it define them.
I have to say, after sitting down with these individuals and hearing about how they help their peers and the families of peers; the community; and their fellow peer support team members; they truly are “Helping Save The Heroes” in our community. They may not be able to hear all of the success stories from the people they help day in and day out, but they should be proud to know that they are making a difference right here in our local community.
To learn more about our Giving Tuesday #HelpSaveTheHeroes Campaign and donate to ICISF, visit ICISF.org/Giving-Tuesday.