Roanoke Fire-EMS Peer Support Team helps first responders cope with trauma

‘You can always reach out to us, any time of night, day, does not matter’

ROANOKE, Va. – Call after call, first responders rush to the rescue and are forced to witness the worst days of peoples’ lives. Fires, car accidents and more all take their toll.

“You take all this stuff and you try to be tough, so you put this in a shoebox, all these things in a shoebox, and eventually they spill over,” said Roanoke Fire-EMS firefighter and paramedic Jonathan Metro.

Before joining the department, Metro served two tours in Iraq as a combat medic. It wasn’t until later that he realized the effect it had on his mental health.

“I realize how bad it had gotten, and thank God. I started doing what I’m doing now and realizing that there’s a better way,” said Metro.

Metro is on the department’s Peer Support Team, which started in 2015 as an anonymous service where first responders can call their peers to talk.

The team is trained in critical incident stress management and can lend an ear or make referrals to other mental health services.

“People in the department, they feel that they can’t reach out. And that’s what we’ve been really trying to push is that everything we do is confidential. You can always reach out to us, any time of night, day, does not matter,” said Metro.

The statistics are staggering. Research shows Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and depression rates for firefighters can be five times higher than the civilian population. Firefighters are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty, according to the International Association of Fire Fighters. The Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance reports that in 2019, firefighter suicides outnumbered line of duty deaths by more than double.

“Our people are seeing significant traumatic events repetitively. And they can have 20-, 25-, 30-year careers and really the cumulative effects of that on their mental health and your well-being, [are] huge,” said Deputy Chief of Operations Marci Stone.

She said the Peer Support Team has made a positive impact. In 2020, they put in over 300 hours of work helping 568 individuals in 10 localities.

“We’ve really seen larger numbers of people seeking services than we ever anticipated. We really want to make sure that people are thinking about the whole body, including their mental health,” said Stone.

They want first responders to know that help is just a call away.

“You can’t just take care of your body, you’ve got to take care of your mind,” said Metro.

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