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New peer-to-peer support program helping St. Lucie County firefighters through difficult times

'Firefighters know what firefighters go through,' division chief says
Posted at 9:29 PM, Sep 17, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-18 06:39:43-04

FORT PIERCE, Fla. — A new peer-to-peer program is providing St. Lucie fire personnel with much-needed resources during difficult times.

"Firefighters know what other firefighters go through," St. Lucie County Fire District Division Chief Aaron Shaw said. "And if nothing else, it's just a way for us to vent and speak to each other."

This week, Shaw, Lt. Jesse Almand, and firefighter-paramedic Rusty Wiles were recognized for their work with the St. Lucie County Fire District's already existing behavioral health programs.

"I was asked two years ago by the fire chief to take our current programs when it came to behavioral health and improve and expand them," Shaw said.

Now they, along with a select group of firefighters, are taking it a step further with the new peer-to-peer program.

"A lot of people don't want to come forward with it and that's why I'm trying to come forward to show people, you're not weak and it's OK to get help," Wiles said.

"It could be a phone conversation, face to face," Almand said. "We have members make home visits."

Almand said he and Shaw chose a group of men and women inside the department based on who all other firefighters said they would feel most comfortable talking to.

"Once you are communicating with an individual, you're almost a person's buddy," Almand said. "You're going to stick with them and see them through the process."

Wiles, who was diagnosed with PTSD in 2019, said he wants to help his firefighting family and let them know they are not alone.

"When all of us got hired, it was just, 'You're going to see some bad things. Just move on,'" Wiles said. "Well, now we're finding out that doesn't work."

The peer-to-peer conversations do not have to be strictly fire-related, according to Almand.

He said anything weighing on the shoulders of his brothers and sisters can be talked over.

The fire district already has its behavioral health assistance program and critical stress management team to help firefighters immediately atypical events such as multi-injury accidents and mass casualties.

"This job is zero to 100 all day long," Wiles said. "You never know what you're going to get when you run out the door. So not only do we need to be physically fit, mentally and emotionally, we need to be stable as well."