Inside the support system for first responders

(WPRI) — First responders experience tragedies on a daily basis, and those events can take a toll. We’ve learned several local fire departments have drastically changed the way they help firefighters cope with the stress of the job.

Whether it’s a fire, a traffic accident, a rescue or a crime scene, first responders are dedicated to saving lives. In 2015, the Cranston Fire Department tells us they responded to nearly 15,000 calls just in the city, and 908 more in other communities. What they see and experience can be life-changing.

“Post-traumatic stress is not a new term,” says Private Scott Robinson of the Cranston Fire Department. “But it’s probably new in the fire service.”

Robinson is a 17-year veteran, and is familiar with PTSD. He was one of dozens of firefighters who fought the Station Nightclub fire in West Warwick on February 20, 2003. He spent almost 8 hours at the scene. Robinson met his wife in the driveway when he got home the next morning.

“I lost it,” he says. “I started crying right there in the driveway. And she said, ‘I’m sorry you had to do that, but I have to go to work.’ I was alone babysitting two kids for the rest of the day and I had to go back to work that night.”

Robinson says he felt alone, and developed a lot of anger. After three years, he and his wife sought counseling.

“In the session it was the first time that I actually talked about the fire itself, and my role in that fire,” says Robinson. “And what I experienced and what I saw. When I was done talking about that, the counselor was crying, my wife was crying. And then later during those sessions I realized my wife never actually left me. She was there that day.”

Cranston Deputy Fire Chief Michael Procopio has also endured emotional pain. In May 2008, he responded to a police standoff on Daisy Court in Cranston. Fellow firefighter James Pagano was hosting a birthday party for his son when he was shot after a dispute with his neighbor, Nicholas Gianquitti.

“I looked down and Jimmy was gray and he was still talking,” says Procopio of that tragic day. “He said ‘help me.'”

Sadly, Procopio couldn’t save his close friend. Pagano died at the hospital.

“That was a very difficult situation for me,” says Procopio.

Private Robinson says his own personal life intertwines with what he sees on the job.

“If we show up to a call, it’s very possible that I’m able to see my own family in that call,” says Robinson.

Seeing that firefighters needed somewhere to turn, Robinson helped initiate a behavioral health wellness program several years ago in Cranston. It helps firefighters cope with the impact of these traumatic situations.

“Listen, who do you call when you’re in trouble?” asks Robinson. “Police, fire. Maybe your family right? Who do firefighters call?”

Cranston, Providence and North Providence are also part of the peer support program. Robinson says one of the biggest challenges has been changing the attitude among first responders when it comes to seeking help.

“I think there’s a stigma attached to it,” says Robinson. “And I think our international is really making a push toward getting rid of that sort of stigma and focusing on behavioral health.”

The program includes meeting with struggling firefighters to talk about their issues, and provides them with the resources to combat substance or alcohol abuse with inpatient and outpatient programs. There are also family services and divorce and financial mediation.

Deputy Chief Procopio says he was lucky to have the peer support program after enduring the death of his close friend and fellow firefighter, James Pagano.

“I think when you have that help quickly,” says Procopio, “it helps to allay some of the problems you might have down the line. It gives indicators to look for. And it helps to decompress from the whole situation.”

Doctor Kathleen Carty is a mental health specialist who helps with the peer support program. She says talking with health professionals is essential.

“What I found in the beginning is that there was some reluctance to come in,” says Dr. Carty.

Doctor Carty says she wants to see firefighters within 48 hours of a traumatic experience.

“The goal is always to have them be able to do their job,” she says, “but also to be whole human beings. Not just to be able to do their job and then kind of crash at the end of their shift.”

Private Robinson now travels the country to pitch the peer support program through the International Association of Firefighters, helping his brother firefighters get the help they need.

“You’re not alone,” says Robinson to fellow first responders. “What we’re experiencing in the field and what we take back to the station, take back home is normal. They’re normal reactions to abnormal events. And there’s resources out there to understand those reactions.”