How DeKalb County first responders deal with on-the-job stress

First responders, their families can call 855-90-SUPPORT or email Illinois Peer Support Network at

On the Job trauma

Editor’s note: Those in need or crisis also can call the national 24/7 suicide hotline 988.

Jack Berry believes the bravest thing a first responder can do is pick up the phone.

A retired firefighter who spent his career at the Northlake, Lisle-Woodrige fire districts and the Franklin Park Fire Departments, Berry’s new mission is the same as his old one: to save lives.

“What we’re paid to do is respond to and calmly mitigate totally out-of-control situations,” Berry said. “We have to make a lot of life-or-death decisions in nanoseconds, and then we have to live with those decisions good or bad. It’s when situations don’t work out that we tend to suffer the most, that we take that personally. And that’s what makes many of us ill, that control, needing to be that superhero 24/7.”

Berry helps operate an Illinois-based free crisis hotline for first responders.

The Illinois Peer Support Network is a nonprofit driven fully by fundraising and an annual grant from the Illinois State Fire Marshal’s Office, Berry said.

“At the end of the day, Superman had kryptonite, man,” Berry said. “We’re not invincible. A lot of us are ill and don’t know it. ... We have PTSD, substance abuse, bad marriages, insomnia, maybe you’re just not on top of your game. All these things can be treated to bring you back into a sense of complete normalcy.”

Law enforcement officers and firefighters are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. First responders have unique job stressors that can affect their personal lives and increase their risk for suicide, according to the CDC.

“I think we’ve evolved to realize that this job takes a toll on you, and that the goal is to leave it as whole as you can. You’re never completely whole because you do see a lot of things, and there’s a lot of demands that are put on you. But I think there’s been a realization over the last several years that we need to do more to take care of our people.”

—  Chief Jim Winters, Sycamore Police Department
DeKalb County Jail and Sheriff's Office building sign and emblem in Sycamore, IL

How it works

Almost a decade in, the Illinois Peer Support Network spans Illinois to southern Wisconsin and northwestern Indiana. Berry and his team have trained about 1,000 people, with about 175 active peers.

Anyone can call 855-90-SUPPORT anytime. It’s open for any first responder and their family, Berry said, retired or not, working or not, regardless of age or ability to pay. Those interested can find their own peer support person by visiting Callers can leave a message or email (“The least scary option” Berry said) and a peer supporter will call back with expediency.

“We do that specifically because we’ll get a lot of hangups from the same number. That is somebody trying to get up the nerve,” Berry said. “After they try a couple times, it’s like, OK we’re calling them. And we get the conversation going that way.”

Everything is anonymous. That’s an important component to fostering enough trust to get people to open up and seek help, Berry said.

During a call, a trained peer supporter will do a quick assessment. The caller will be invited to share what’s bothering them or voice specific needs if that’s what they’d prefer.

If someone needs more specific support, such as clinical help or more in-depth counseling, peer supporters will connect the caller with those resources “regardless of their financial ability,” Berry said. “Because not everybody has got rock star PTO. We deal a lot with part-time and rural firefighters that don’t have adequate insurance. All of our clinicians are willing to work on an extremely sliding scale.”

Berry also travels the region conducting trainings for police and fire agencies at their request to build their own localized peer support networks.

“We encourage the power of the conversation because just the conversation, quite often, can save a life,” Berry said. “We’ve had over a dozen instances where we have been involved in a same-day suicide save.”

What does help look like locally?

The DeKalb County Mental Health Board offers services to first responders across the county. Paid for by a grant through the county, law enforcement officers in the area have the option of seeking professional mental wellness services.

In Sycamore, Chief Jim Winters requires everyone in the Sycamore Police Department to do an annual wellness visit with a mental health provider who specializes in first responders.

“Everybody has to go, whether you want to or not,” Winters said. “And I’m the first one to do it. They have about an hour to talk about how they’re balancing their family, their job; maybe there’s some issue that they’re just looking for some affirmation. It could be nothing to do with work.”

Support from the community also can go a long way toward boosting morale, Winters said.

In his 35th year in law enforcement, Winters, who got his start with the Illinois State Police, said he’s been to too many police officer funerals. He said he believes the decades have put the harsh conditions of the job under a sharper microscope.

“I think we’ve evolved to realize that this job takes a toll on you, and that the goal is to leave it as whole as you can,” Winters said. “You’re never completely whole because you do see a lot of things, and there’s a lot of demands that are put on you. But I think there’s been a realization over the last several years that we need to do more to take care of our people.”

DeKalb Police Chief David Byrd, who also started out with the ISP, said policing looks a lot different than it did in 1989.

“I can remember Director [Brendan] Kelly from the state police. We were talking one day and he used the term ‘A checkup for your neck, up.’ I was, like, that’s basically what we’re allowing them to do, ... especially in this profession where we deal with a lot of death, we deal with the worst of the worst. So we have to prepare ourselves for it.”

Byrd starts with encouraging officers at the DeKalb Police Department to take regular stock of themselves and talk about it. He said he pays close attention to officers first on the scene of particularly intense 911 calls. He often then requires them to undergo what he called critical incident debriefing.

It’s “really just to talk about their feelings,” Byrd said.

As chief, Byrd said he feels it’s part of his job to tend to the well-being of his department. He schedules and personally pays for regular social outings for officers and their families. May will feature a movie night to go see “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes.” Summer outings include Cubs and White Sox games.

“I try to expose everyone here at the police department with these types of extracurricular events because I personally know how it affects you mentally. And that’s my job as chief is to alleviate and mitigate as much of the stress as I can,” Byrd said.

Does it ever get to be too much, even for him as chief? What would he say to an aspiring police officer in today’s world?

“Today, I feel the same way I did when I started at the police academy in 1989,” Byrd said. “I genuinely feel that same excitement, that same willingness to learn, the enjoyment of it all. I love wearing the uniform. I do think being a police officer is the most honorable position you can be in.”

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