Peer Support saves those who save lives daily

Chris Humer doesn’t recall every detail. He remembers a Tolono Fire Department jacket floating out of the car he managed to get open underwater. And he remembers switching from firefighter to friend.

“I thought, ‘Jared comes down this road every day. He’s gonna stop,” Humer said. “We blocked the road, but I still had to be there when they told my best friend his little brother was dead.”

Memories of 21-year-old Jamie Ping will last long after the upcoming five-year anniversary of the fellow Tolono volunteer firefighter’s death. First responders—firefighters, paramedics and emergency medical technicians (EMTs)—see more of life’s toughest moments in a shift than many of us see in a lifetime.

Support—real support—from their peers will help more of them avoid the very natural and very serious pitfalls of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), broken relationships, money problems and more. Arrow Ambulance paramedic Humer and others provide support to their Emergency Medical Services (EMS) peers statewide. EMS Week lets these first responders spotlight a program they know will save the lives of people who save lives.

How necessary is peer support? Completely, says Dr. Brad Weir, Carle Regional Emergency Medical Services director. 

“The suicide rate among firefighters and EMS personnel is about three and a half times higher than that of the general population. Anxiety, depression, PTSD and substance abuse rates are higher, too,” Weir said. “We have great resources, but not all therapists understand the type of psychological impact associated with major trauma, burns, abuse and death.”   

Peer support means sharing stories in a safe place with people who can relate. Humer agrees that’s not always easy in the first responder culture.

“We have to chip away at the Alpha personality type. We have to let up on ourselves,” he said. “Once in a while, we have to take off our cape and be human.”

That can start with a call to 1-855-90-SUPPORT (1-855-907-8776) or by clicking on “Request Assistance” on the Illinois Peer Support Team website. Trained Peer Support staff will respond within 24 hours. All information remains confidential. Support for spouses is available, as well.

First responders aren’t the only one who need someone to turn to.

“We plan to start a Peer Support program for healthcare providers at Carle, including nurses, advanced practice providers and physicians,” Dr. Weir said. “Firefighter and physician culture are unfortunately similar in stoicism. This could add something important.”

And it’s almost certain to add something emotion-filled. Fresh tears still resurface every time Humer shares his story.

“It’s OK to get emotional,” said Humer (pictured above with wife Jennifer and daughter Kinsley). “When we hear other peoples’ stories, we can help them. We need to take care of each other. It’s OK to struggle. We deal with a lot of bad stuff.”