GREAT FALLS – Billings Firefighter Matt Hoppel has been a firefighter for 20 years and he said a great need has gone unnoticed for many years.
“We have never got ahead of it. We have never said you are going to come across this stuff in the fire service and how you deal with it,” Hopple said.
But for the past two days, Hoppel joined firefighters from Montana, Washington, and Idaho to learn how they can be peer supports for their departments.
“We have had a lot of similar type programs but not specifically geared towards the peer to peer training,” Hoppel said.
International Association of Firefighters Peer Instructor Kerry Ramella said they have found through research that firefighters have a higher rate of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and suicide than the normal population.
“They are exposed to trauma on a shift basis. They have sleep deprivation because of the type of work that they do. They are the problem solvers so they should be able to handle it and they don’t reach out,” Ramella said.
Ramella said they found that firefighters are more comfortable speaking to people who know where they are coming from and can understand what they are going through.
“The hope is peer supports will be the bridge to other resources,” Ramella said. “If someone goes to a peer support and talks about their problem, the peer supporter can then connect them to the resource that will ultimately help them.”
Once the class is over, the men and women can bring the knowledge they learned back to their departments and start a peer support team.
Bozeman Firefighter Britton Clark has been a firefighter for five years and he helped start the department’s peer support team.
“In Bozeman Fire Department, we started a peer support team about six months ago just to really take care of our members,” he said. “This training offered by the IAFF is really the next step.”
Clark added that this is the first step to chaning the stigma of mental health among firefighters.
“It’s just amazing for us to get the same level of training across the nation. It is important because we have not done it before. Guys are just starting to recognize just how important that stuff is.”
If you know a firefighter in need of help, call 844-252-3473.
Reporting by Margaret DeMarco for MTN News