Seven years ago, Fort Belvoir's Fire Department suffered a terrible loss, when one of their own, Michael Deal, took his own life. "No one saw it coming. We were all shocked," said Jonathan Lang, Fort Belvoir Fire and Emergency Services. However, Lang said Deal's suicide made him want to change the way the firefighter community deals with -- and recovers from -- parts of their jobs that bring added stress.
"First responders, dispatchers, correctional officers, firefighters, fire inspectors, Soldiers; anyone who puts on a uniform of service often sees a lot of trauma," Lang said. "We see some tough stuff. Many of us are adrenaline junkies and find the jobs very rewarding. But, failure on the job is soul-crushing."
Lang said the first-responder community also often has higher rates of post-traumatic stress, grief, substance abuse, divorce and family problems, and alcoholism. In response, Lang and a dozen department members facilitate a Peer Support Team, which is available to help fire department personnel get the help and resources they may need, confidentially. "Confidentiality and privacy are the most important things," said Lang, the department's peer support coordinator.
Ask for help
"We can't stress this enough…It's OK to ask for help and get help. It's OK to know that you need help. It's OK to not be OK," Lang said. "We just don't want you to feel alone."
He said the support team members don't serve as clinicians or diagnose, but listen and get their colleagues the resources, help and support they need. The verified resources provided by the Peer Support Team include spiritual help, mental wellness awareness, ethics, recovering from critical incidents, stress management and family support, to name a few. When he's helping or listening to any of his colleagues through the Peer Support Team, Lang can particularly relate to some of their stressors.
An addict and an alcoholic
"I'm an addict and an alcoholic," Lang said. "I was so far gone. I wasn't supposed to be here. I deeply believe that anyone can recover. Anyone can do it, because I was that far down the spiral." Lang's been sober for five years, but knows his experiences are similar to some people he helps. "Sometimes, they may trust me more. In a brotherhood like a fire department, it's much easier to speak with … and open up to … people you know," he said.
"We want our brothers and sisters here to know that people in the department have their backs, concerning mental wellness, recovery and confidentiality," Lang said. "This team is great. We want them all to know we have a vested interest in the employees, here, that they succeed, and get help if they need it."
"The meetings are a place not to be judged, but to speak with colleagues, likely with the same situations. They'll be in a safe environment and the process happens on their terms," Lang said.
The sessions benefit more than just the recipient.
"Being on the Peer Support Team helps me, too. It keeps me humble and close to my own recovery. The process triggers empathy and sympathy. Helping them absolutely helps me," he said.
Kevin Good, Belvoir Fire Department's deputy fire chief, said the Peer Support Team saves lives behind the first-responder curtain. "We're really proud of the team, the services it provides and the grass-roots efforts behind it," he said. "Tradition was that we just suck it up and go about our day, or just let it go. There was a fear of saying, 'I am not OK.' Thanks to our Peer Support Teams education and outreach to first responders, we have an environment where the team knows we are human, just like everybody else."
"First responders face all kinds of trauma on a daily basis. Fort Belvoir Fire & Emergency Services has taken the lead to ensure its firefighters, and others in the region, have access to the resources and expertise needed to prevent a first responder from having to deal with issues on their own," Good said.
From the beginning
When new department members come on board, they learn about the Peer Support Team. "We want them to know we're ever-present, but that nothing is mandatory."
Lang said he's seen the whole department take a shift in attitude toward the importance of programs like the Peer Support Team. "So many I've worked with before now, were reactive, instead of proactive, leaders.
He said the Fort Belvoir Peer Support program is constantly evolving and other federal fire departments have reached out to Belvoir with interest in creating their own support teams, using Belvoir as an example.
Help is Available
Suicide is a serious concern. If you are in crisis, or you know someone who is, there are immediate resources available to support you or your loved ones. The Military Crisis Line connects those in need to a trained counselor with a single phone call or click of a mouse. This confidential, immediate help is available 24/7 at no cost to active duty, Guard and reserve members, their families and friends. Contact the Military Crisis Line at 800-273-8255, then press 1, or access online chat by texting 838255.