COLORADO SPRINGS — Data shows a troubling suicide trend among first responders. It includes firefighters. "We're at least meeting or exceeding line of duty deaths with suicides, which is concerning," said Colorado Springs Firefighter and Peer Supporter, John Giacoma. When he says “we,” Giacoma is referring the shared community of firefighters nationally.
Colorado Springs Fire Department has not had an active duty firefighter suicide in years. "Numbers that deviate from that national average significantly. We attribute that directly to having a Peer Support model.” Suicide is an issue actively addressed locally with what is called a Peer Support program.
There is a staff psychologist, also nearly 40 everyday firefighters who have gone through training to offer peer support to their colleagues. "The effort is to remove that stigma, the idea that we have to just grin and bear it, the idea that we have to just push through and be stronger, be tougher,” Giacoma, “We can be all of those things and still admit that there are things that are going to affect us." Firefighters face tragedies all the time and studies show it can build to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Peer support is a way to have a one on one conversation with someone who has had similar experiences Giacoma said, "If we were exposed to those things and we didn't have some sort of stress responses that would be concerning."
These men and women signed up for this type of work, but they cannot avoid traumatic and troubling situations. "We consider post traumatic stress to be a natural component of the job. It's inherent to what we do,” said Giacoma, “Letting it evolve into an injury or disorder is what we try to preempt. Most of the time peer support helps. Sometimes there is need to call for extra help from a mental health pro.
Colorado Springs Fire Department is an early adopter of the peer support model, but it is not unique to the department. Because of the proactive approach and success, the department has helped other agencies add or improve their programs.