What happens when first responders need help?

Oregon firefighters responded to a garage fire at a fellow firefighter's home several years ago.

OREGON – Fire protection districts in rural and small communities rely on volunteer first responders to step up when tragedy strikes.

Oftentimes, those first responders are called to scenes that involve someone they are friends with, know, or in some cases, related to.

Two local fire departments comment on how to help those first responders cope.

“Our members full time and volunteer are mostly from Oregon, live in Oregon, or live nearby. Our crews do see people we know sometimes when we are on these scenes. Regardless of if we know them or not the things that the crews see on a day-to-day basis can be very difficult,” said Oregon Fire Chief Mike Knoup. “We understand now more than ever how important mental health is.”

“We understand now more than ever how important mental health is.”

—  Oregon Fire Chief Mike Knoup

Knoup said his department has a company on retainer that they can call at any time to send someone to Oregon and meet with a first responder in need.

“This is all very new to us and we are still trying to figure out how to go forward with this,” he said. “We would like to see the opportunity to have our members talk with someone on a more regular basis. Sometimes the home life can have stresses that affect performance at work and we feel we have to provide everything we can to make sure our people are taken care of.

“The biggest part of getting through the tough calls is everyone being open with each other and being able to talk about what they saw. Talking about the stuff we see together tends to be the best medicine,” he said.

Mount Morris Fire Chief Rob Hough IV said each firefighter responds to traumatic events in their own way.

“I think each and every one of us handle it differently. I have seen some pretty horrific, not to mention heartbreaking, things in my more than three decades of service to our community,” Hough said. “My family has lived in the community for seven generations; we have been involved in business here that entire time as well. When you are that intertwined in a community it becomes personal.

“I have treated my teachers, my family members, done CPR on classmates, had to tell friends their parents are deceased or, worst, parents that their children are. Car accidents, medical calls, fires, all of it. To me it is important to compartmentalize it, do our job and file it away, hopefully not to revisit me someday. It’s not always that easy, but that is what I personally strive to do. I approach it with the attitude that someone has to do it. I treat each and every situation with the respect and dignity I would want my loves ones to be treated with.”

Hough said the department’s chaplain, Josh Ehler, is very involved in peer support in the fire service. He also serves as the chaplain for the Illinois Firefighters Association.

“I’m the local fire chaplain for Mt. Morris Fire and hold a statewide role. Chaplains are responsible for the mental and behavioral health of their department, as well as families impacted by crisis, so we pursue training and ongoing learning in those areas. I can certainly tell you about the resources we have available and how we respond to difficult situations immediately and long term,” said Ehler.

“Folks see us do our jobs, and do them with incredible professionalism and training. We also can be impacted by the work we do, as any human would be. Chaplains and peer support personnel function to assist the fire service, and police and dispatch, to be aware of, and sometimes address when difficult situations begin to impact our daily lives,” Ehler said.

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Earleen Hinton

Earleen Hinton

Earleen creates content and oversees production of 8 community weeklies. She has worked for Shaw Newspapers since 1985.