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Using Peer Support To Reach First Responders In Crisis

Jeff Orrange. Photo: Matthew Peddie, WMFE
Jeff Orrange. Photo: Matthew Peddie, WMFE

When Jeff Orrange learned about the statistics on first responders taking their own lives, he said he was staggered. More first responders die by suicide than in the line of duty. Now Orrange and others are working to change the equation.  

"We decided that we didn't want to wait for a directive to come out, and we wanted to see what we could do to get ahead of it," he says.

"Through that, the members really kind of took this on, and they were the ones that propelled this thing forward through taking care of each other."

Orrange is a lieutenant paramedic with the Orlando fire department and the statewide peer team coordinator for the Florida Firefighter Safety & Health Collaborative.  The collaborative is set up to help firefighters reach out to fellow firefighters to get the mental health support they need. 

He says it's been a learning process for firefighters and for management.

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The patch on Jeff Orrange's sleeve reflects the aim of the Florida Firefighter Safety & Health Collaborative. Photo: Matthew Peddie, WMFE[/caption]

"You can see a broken arm, so you know that somebody's in need. But you can't always see that mental injury. When you can't see it, it's hard to wrap your head around if you've never been through it as well. So the education process is not just for the peer supporters, it has to be for the senior leadership. They have to grasp onto it."

He says the peer support network represents a culture shift in the way first responders deal with the challenges of the job. 

"There's things that are acceptable, and then there's things that we perceive as unacceptable. It's acceptable to get very angry. Anger is a very acceptable emotion. It's not acceptable to cry. It's acceptable to drink excessively; it's not acceptable to see a clinician or therapist because you don't want to drink excessively," says Orrange.

"Those things are really starting to shift. We're really seeing a shift and it's amazing to watch."

He says the next step in developing the peer support network is to have trained and vetted clinicians and peer supporters who are able to respond and help their fellow first responders during a traumatic event. And there's an app in the works to help connect first responders in need with members of the peer support network.