BFD moves to support mental health options

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BELOIT - A handful of Beloit Fire Department (BFD) staff are teaming up to fill a void they say currently exists in the department: peer-to-peer mental health support following traumatic incident responses.

The department will create a Peer Support Team to help fire staff members dealing with the aftermath of traumatic calls for service. The department stopped doing debriefings of incidents about a decade ago, said Acting Lt. Jessica Flanagan.

She said the debriefings were becoming a detriment to the mental health of firefighters rather than a benefit.

"We've overlooked mental health for so long. The old school way of thinking, 'Just suck it up and deal with it' doesn't work," Flanagan said. "You might be able to get over one or two calls, but it's just a cumulative stress of all these bad calls over and over again. It starts to hit you."

The department will send 15 staff members to peer support training in Janesville in March, with Flanagan helping to create an advisory board for the support group last October with Rock County Fire Officers Association Clinical Director of Wellness Dr. Rick Barney and BFD staff members Phil Ferrera, Jeff Heim, Mike Lorenz and Scott Smith.

Recently retired BFD members assistant chief Tim Curtis, Lt. Paul Martin and motor pump operator Ben Smith will also join as team members, Flanagan said.

The 15 BFD staff members to be trained in Janesville alongside Janesville and Town of Beloit fire department staff will take their knowledge back for a department-wide training session to help staff recognize when a peer is struggling.

"They will be trained in knowing how to talk to people and when to refer them if they are not doing well," Flanagan said. "And we will have different levels of help for them to get."

So far the group has drafted a standard operating guide and have brought on Central Christian Church's Craig Zastro to act as pastor on the team, Flanagan said.

"We have each other's backs physically, but mentally that's what was ruining us. That extends across the fire service, not just here in Beloit," Flanagan said. "We need to support our staff so they are physically healthy and mentally healthy so they can perform their job at the highest level."

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