The Tucson Fire Department is developing a new program that responds to the traumatic stress firefighters might experience on daily calls.
It's called the Peer Operational Support Team, and is a collaborative effort between the University of Arizona and the fire department.
Tucson Fire is working with Patricia Haynes, a UA assistant professor of psychiatry and a clinical psychologist.
Their teamwork has resulted in the creation of a peer-response program that, Haynes said, better addresses the individual needs of firefighters.
"This is a team of firefighters that (approach) their fellow firefighters after a particularly painful or potential painful incident," Haynes said. "They call them critical incidents, maybe something like a childhood death, or some other form of call that might take a particular toll on a person. (The team) respond to the individual needs of the fellow firefighter, as well as have a couple of follow up interviews later on.”
Before the peer-response program, the fire department used a different method called Critical Incident Stress Management, which calls for a person who experiences a traumatic event, such as a mass shooting, to sit down in a group setting and talk about the situation shortly after it happened.
Chris Don, a Tucson firefighter with a master's degree in psychology, said that method didn't work for them.
"(This program is good for people who) maybe don’t want to be involved in the process of going through the call again, (while sitting in front of others), reliving the situation, and talking about how it effected them emotionally," Don said.
Scientific literature explains that people have individual needs after a traumatic event, and debriefing can do more harm than good, Haynes said. According to her, it often takes 30 to 60 days for the effects of a traumatic event to hit a person, and that’s why it’s critical to follow up with a firefighter once he or she has had time to process the traumatic experience.
“...firefighters start off, before they come to a shift, as a father, a husband or a business owner," said Captain John Gullota, who is in charge of health and safety for the Tucson Fire Department. "When we leave...(work), (sometimes) we bring...the bad things and the memories of those calls. We want to make sure we process them and leave them at work, so when we go home to our families...that we are able to focus on them and focus on day to day life activities.”
The department’s new program is not training firefighters to be therapists rather it’s training them to be active listeners and able to respond, Gullota said.
There are two crew members trained in the peer-response method on each shift. The fire department continues to work on the program. Gullota said, in the future, they'd like to share it with other fire departments.
A $10,000 grant from the university is helping to fund the project.