In Georgia, a statewide peer support network is expanding rapidly to meet the needs of first responders dealing with the stress they carry with them following critical incidents. The State of Georgia is making sure help is available to first responders in all 159 counties.
The Georgia Department of Public Safety launched the Office of Public Safety Support (OPSS) in July 2019 to provide any first responder, anywhere in the state, help when they need it. Prior to the formation of the office, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) and the Georgia State Patrol (GSP) each had their own peer support programs based on lessons learned from the South Carolina Law Enforcement Assistance Program, a similar yet different type of program. The experiences of those separate Georgia programs ultimately created the foundation for what OPSS does today.
Several years ago, a state legislator from the Augusta area visited a peer counseling event for first responders and saw a need to provide fulltime peer counseling on a larger scale. As a result, Georgia HB 73 created OPSS and provided funding. The bill carried total support at the state capital with the entire legislature voting unanimously to approve it.
Leadership for the program comes from both GSP and GBI, with GSP Lt. Col. Stephanie Stallings overseeing the group. GBI Special Agent in Charge Wes Horne serves as the director and by his side is GSP Lt. Stacey Collins, the deputy director of the office. All three are law enforcement veterans with a strong desire to serve their brothers and sisters in public safety.
“This is a testament to the State of Georgia for their commitment to the mental wellness of our first responders and I think that this is unique across the country with everything that you see about the police and defunding the police. Here in Georgia, we are actually investing in the wellbeing of our officers. In turn, it’s going to make Georgia a better place, a safer place,” Horne says.
The Office of Public Safety Support is comprised of five peer counselors that are each based in a region of the state and two mental health professionals. Stallings, Horne, and Collins each are peer counselors as well and can spring into action as needed. Of those five fulltime peer counselors, four come from a law enforcement background and one from fire/EMS.
“They had extensive careers, extensive knowledge with first responder work. We were looking for those people who could not only have those shared experiences but also people who had been there and done that in the sense that they have been doing this long enough that they have the respect of their counterparts, whether it be police work or fire work,” Horne says. “We think we found five, really, really good peers who not only can talk the talk but have walked the walk as well.”
They monitor news, social media, and sometimes are contacted by state agencies like GSP or GBI following an incident. When a critical incident happens, the peer in the region and the staff in the Atlanta office know about it and offer to help. Individuals or agencies, large or small, can also contact their region’s peer or the office directly to request assistance following incidents.
“If we have an incident in one of our regions, we’re made aware of it and the peer is made aware of it and then they reach out to the agency. They let them know what services we provide and then if we are requested to, we will go in and provide those services,” explains Horne.
Horne says peer support is not always the only answer. It is most of what they do, sure, but there are first responders that need a professional level of care. In those situations, the two mental health professionals, licensed clinical social workers, step in.
“If a peer is working with a first responder and at some point, that peer feels like they need to talk to a professional, then we will refer them to our mental help professionals and that process starts from there,” Horne says.
Post Critical Incident Seminar
Three times a year, OPSS holds multi-day seminars that bring first responders together to get help and to help each other following a critical incident. The Post Critical Incident Seminars (PCIS) are fully booked each time with 25 to 30 in attendance. But, in addition to those seeking help there are typically 20 to 25 peers in attendance ready to support them. Also, typically about five mental health professionals are there as well. Participants arrive the evening before the three-day seminar starts. Day one is mostly large group work, then the remaining days are broken down to smaller group sessions led by peers, classroom instruction, and one-on-one time with peer counselors or the social workers.
“We have an opportunity to listen to those participants tell their stories and when they go around the room, the first person that tells their story it gives a little bit more courage for the next person to share their story. I truly believe that without this program many of them could have retired early, walked away from it, and said ‘I’m not doing it anymore’,” Stallings says.
Attendance at the seminars is also open to spouses and loved ones of first responders. Stallings says sometimes a spouse has not heard their first responder talk about the traumatic experience until attending the PCIS. The counseling and support not only helps heal the first responder, it also in these cases can help the relationship. Stallings said recently someone said they came to the program to be supportive of their family member in public safety. But, that individual left with the feeling of being supported themselves Stallings says.
“When that person made the statement that they came in being supportive, but they left being supported, it was pretty amazing,” Stallings said. “It was kind of eye opening.”
Spreading the Word
There are more than 120,000 first responders in Georgia, yet only five peer counselors and two mental health professionals in OPSS. The staff is working hard to let first responders around the state know help is there for them. In 2021, the office had more than 3,000 contacts. Much of that was reaching out in advance. However, in that same year, peer counselors provided nearly 90 critical incident stress debriefings.
The best way for first responders to benefit from the services if for them to know in advance about OPSS before a peer is needed. So, the peer counselors are working their regions hard and getting the message in front of as many first responders as they can.
“Our peers are in the process of reaching out to all of their sheriffs, police chiefs, fire chiefs, EMA directors, and anybody in a leadership role in public safety in their region,” Horne says. “That is starting to pay dividends and people are starting to reach out to us after an incident happens.”
Collins says once departments around the state have firsthand seen their people benefit from the peer counselors and other OPSS services, they are more likely to call again. That is proving to be true.
“When we have been to a place and done a debriefing and it goes well, of course they are a lot more apt to call us later. A lot of this is word of mouth and getting in that very first time and them seeing the outcome of it, seeing how it helped their first responders,” Collins says.
Sometimes, they call very quickly. Collins shares the story of a recent fatal fire. Peer counselors had already worked with the responding fire department in the past and had proven what they can do for first responders. So, before the fire could even be extinguished the fire department contacted OPSS to get the ball rolling to support their firefighters in dealing with the tragic fire.
“That is an example of what we envision happing all across the state,” Collins says.
OPSS never charges a first responder seeking help. The peer counseling, the mental health social workers, and the seminars are free. The only cost ever incurred is when a department pays for meals and lodging when one of their men or women attend a PCIS.
Expanding the Help
The same state law that created OPSS also established it as the certifying agency for peer counseling. Horne said they have developed a 40-hour course and have been certifying first responders around the state to become peer counselors. Once they graduate the course, they receive certification and return to their agencies and provide peer support within that agency. But they also are often called on by the state office for assisting others with one-on-one contacts, group interventions, or by helping at a PCIS. Last year, more than 100 new peer counselors were trained and certified.
“We’re not familiar with anything else out there around the country that’s exactly the way we do it here,” says Horne.
The department is also accumulating more mental health resources for first responders in the state. Both of the office’s mental health professionals are tasked with creating a vetted list of additional mental health resources that meet several criteria for OPSS. Some of those vetted assets have affordable or maybe multiple payment options, may have come from a first responder background or family, or for one reason or another they work with and understand the needs of first responders.
“We want to make sure that when we do refer people out to mental health professionals that these are people that have a better understanding of the type of trauma first responders face,” says Collins.
In addition to all the human resources available, OPSS also has canine support in the form of two therapy dogs. Collins is the handler for a full-service canine. The other canine is the personal therapy dog that belongs to one of the peer counselors.
“Among many things, they are trained to pick up on PTSD and anxiety,” Collins says. “Their objective is if they detect high stress, they get you to take your attention off yourself and put it on them.”
One of the two canines would be hard to miss, it is a Great Dane. When the canine picks up on stress, he will either lean on or sit on the individual according to Collins.
Stallings, Horne, and Collins all believe in their mission and talk at length about helping first responders cope, recover, and move forward to continue in their careers. But they also know when it comes to mental health there are times when first responders follow a route that ends in taking their own life.
“We are faced with people in public safety who take their own lives. If one person’s life can be saved, if one person could change their mind from being at such a low point where they feel like they can’t go on and make a turn and continue to go on and live, it’s almost hard to describe. It is really so unbelievably important. There are so many members of public safety who take their own lives every year,” Stallings says. “I think it is really important that this group is doing everything they possibly can to hopefully see that one person that may be in that dark place changes their mind and decides not to do that.”
The OPSS leadership trio wants to provide whatever service a first responder might need and although that begins with peer counseling and debriefings, it can involve far more assistance if needed. Their mission is to help someone, be there for them 24/7, and connect them with whatever resources are needed.
“Getting a first responder to admit that they need help is very hard, very hard to do,” says Horne. “But when you do get them to admit that, we want to be with them through the whole process and make it a smooth of a transition whether it just be peer support, which is a majority of it; or if they need that next level of care which is a mental health professional; or those very rare cases where they need that extended level of care where they need to be in some kind of facility or some kind of program whether it be for substance abuse or mental health.”
Collins points to the broader impact of the services and what it means to the community.
“It’s a win for everyone, even the citizens of Georgia. When a first responder is coming to help you, whether that be a wreck or whatever the situation may be, I want a mentally healthy first responder coming when I need them. It’s a win all the way around,” Collins.
“It’s always been kind of taboo, people in public safety we’re real awkward to speak with someone in a mental health professional career because we think that it’s something we’re going to judged on or we don’t want somebody to think we’re not fit for duty,” Stallings. “These peers and these mental health professionals work side by side every day to provide what is going to be the best for the individual that is needing assistance.”