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My Homeless Experience for the Night

The following post was submitted by Andy Perry of the Peoria Fire Department:

On Friday, January 13, 2017, I volunteered to be a part of about 70 local community members in spending the night outside the Peoria Civic Center in cardboard refrigerator boxes, from 6:00 pm in the evening until 6:00 am the next morning.    A not-for-profit group hosted the event to raise awareness of the challenges faced by those in the Peoria, Illinois community without homes and to give citizens an opportunity to help in the fight to end homelessness in Central Illinois.  Each of us was sked to raise $1,000 for the “privilege” of participating.  The event raised approximately $64,000 to support the group’s continuing efforts to provide permanent supportive housing and end homelessness in our community.   The event also included a series of educational presentations focused on homelessness and its impact on our community.

 

Homeless man holding a sign

 

The idea was first mentioned at a monthly union meeting, and three Peoria Firefighter Local 50 members attended along with our Assistant Fire Chief.  We met up in the lobby of the Peoria Civic Center and signed in a few minutes before the event kicked off and we began our twelve hours of homelessness.

 

I must admit the 28 degree temperatures felt pretty cushy as I was bundled up in long johns, sweat pants, snow pants, t-shirt, sweatshirt, down-feather coat, ski gloves, and snow cap.  I felt my first pang of guilt.  The next step was to choose my house.  I picked a 27-cubic foot refrigerator box and positioned it next to my fellow firefighters’ homes, but not before spreading a yoga mat down beneath it for an additional barrier between me and the cold concrete – my second pang of guilt.  Next came the industrial grade waterproof, gooseneck feather filled, arctic rated sleeping bag.  At this point, ten minutes in to the night, I felt like I was cheating until I looked around at similarly dressed and prepared participants that looked ready for a trip to the North Pole.

 

An awkward feeling-out period began next as people began to mingle and chat and discuss the night ahead.  A man with a bullhorn informed us there would be pizza delivered in a few hours, there were warming stations just inside the foyer door, and armed security guards staffed the entrance and exit locations to keep out the local riff-raff – many of whom I suppose were homeless.  This time the guilty pang hit me with a bit more sense of irony and hypocrisy.  Nevertheless, a few hours passed and I decided to hit the rack.

 

 

Homelss sign

 

I laid down and snuggled into the sleeping bag and found a nice hole in the box near my head.  Although it allowed the 18 degree temperatures and 10mph wind from the ENE to infiltrate my bedroom, it served nicely as a hanger for my eye glasses.  The festive mood outside slowly died down and I naturally couldn’t sleep.  This was a blessing.  It allowed me time to think about the experience on many different levels.

 

I originally signed up to gain a simple understanding of what it would be like to be homeless.  I had envisioned meeting at a predetermined location, hopping in the back of a van and being dropped off on a random street corner left to survive the elements and surroundings of the real “Street life.”  The guilty pleasures of having warm clothing, a safe environment, and warm food, put a damper on those notions.  All was not lost, however.  It was still humbling as I lay there without my CPAP machine or my dogs at the foot of the bed.  My wife wasn’t there and my kids weren’t in the rooms next door.  This was enough to help me empathize with the true sick and suffering persons ailing with homelessness every day and night. I thought of the uniformed police officers working overtime to ensure my safety.  I had never seen similar security details in my 23+ years of being a Peoria Firefighter.  At the time this was written, Peoria had ten shootings in the previous week.  I thought of the times when, as a first responder, I muttered under my breath, feelings of being ‘put out’ by such emergency responses.  I reflected a little deeper into the underlying reasons for some of the homeless individuals to begin with: under-education, addiction, PTSD, assorted mental disorders, feelings of unrecoverable despair, and other contributing factors of life’s unbalanced equity for all.  I eventually fell in and out of sleep for the remainder of the night and I left for home feeling exhausted.  My next-door neighbor, a brother firefighter of mine, undoubtedly left tired as well, as he continually pounded on my exterior wall a few dozen times throughout the night at my snoring.

 

Walk a mile in my shoes saying

 

By no means did this experience give me a 100% insight on what it truly means to be homeless, but in addition to the experience itself, I was enlightened and left speechless by two of the donors that helped me raise my monetary goal.  One indicated to me that he was happy to give because he had been there in real life.  I had no idea.  Another was my niece, an elementary school teacher in a deprived Peoria neighborhood, who told me, “I’m so proud of you uncle Andy. This will directly help many of my students!”  We probably must walk a mile in another man’s shoes to know the real story, but there is some benefit to walking a half-mile – especially if it gets us out of our comfort zone.  I look forward to next January.

 

Andy Perry

Illinois Firefighter Peer Support

andrewperry100@yahoo.com

@andrewperry100 on Twitter

Never Leave Behind Those That Lift Us Up

In 1994, as a newly commissioned firefighter, I thought I was going to save the world and immediately immersed myself into this new career.  Around that same time, I became engaged to (my now wife) Judy who in her own right started a career as a 3rd grade teacher.  She was supportive in all I did (and I, her) to educate myself in all things firefighting.  I took as many classes as I could and was going Mach II (no pun intended) with my hair on fire.  We married in October of 1996.

Newly Weds on the Beach at sunset

 

Fast forward to that period, and I now recall an early anecdotal story from our marriage.  Our first “home” was a 2-bedroom apartment in Alsip where Judy had just prepared this wonderful dinner that was about to be set on the table- suddenly, the phone rang.  I picked it up and the conversation went something like this: “Hello.  Okay, I will be right there” (now Judy was busy in the kitchen and did not hear the I’ll be right there part of my conversation).  When I hung up, I told her that the firehouse called for a standby, and I proceeded to put my shoes on.  She asked me “Where are you going?”, and I said- “the firehouse”.  Judy was under the impression that a standby meant I would do this from home.  I grabbed my coat and headed out the door.  I vividly remember the disappointment in her face as I left- only to return 4 hours later.

What I realized in that moment was that during the first 2 years of my career, I had educated myself in firefighting, but failed to teach Judy the jargon/lingo.  She knew what a general alarm signified each time the pager and community sirens activated, but not the standby.  Ugh!  She is the one who lifts me up, and I left her behind.  As the years passed, Judy became a crafty veteran firefighter’s wife.

However, there was one thing neither of us had anticipated- what this job would do to my psyche. Every 1st responder knows that he/she is going to see bad things when they raise their right hand and pledge to serve and protect- it is something that comes with the weight of this oath.  Everyone will respond differently to the cumulative traumas to which they are exposed, as some are more grounded than others.  Me- I suffered for over 16+ years with undiagnosed PTSD after bearing witness to the suicide of a colleague.  Judy had to deal with the ups and downs of mood swings, road rage, family feuds, etc.  I am forever grateful that she is still with me, because a less resilient person may have walked away.  I know in my heart there had to be times she wished for someone to talk to that could relate (be her peer support).  During that time in our lives such support did not exist.  Judy is my best friend in the whole, wide, world- and it is because of her selfless love that I am still in the fire service today.

 

Firefighter helping family across the street

My point here is that not only do we commit to a 20-30-year career when we swear an oath, but also our spouses, children, significant others, and even pets.  They know that by the very nature of our chosen vocation, we are going to miss many a milestone event (along with holidays, barbeques, soccer games, etc.) because we cannot always switch days to attend these outings.  This comes with the territory, and the families gain acceptance to that fact.  It doesn’t make it any easier, but it does happen.  Unfortunately, there are many relationships that will not survive this lifestyle commitment.  If we work a 24/48-hour schedule, we will spend just less than 1/3 of our lives apart, and this doesn’t include overtime, training, pub ed opportunities . . .  Now add the stress of behavioral health issues that insert themselves into the relationship.  So, what can we do to ensure that those we love are not left behind?  Education.

Here at ILFFPS, we have the spousal/significant other program that is headed by Colleen Murphy.  Colleen is a firefighter’s wife who offers that perspective, along with Matt Olson who contributes to the firefighter side of this presentation.  I encourage departments (who haven’t already done so) to offer this program to their newly engaged, newly married, and even veteran couples of their membership- as all attendees will take some nugget of wisdom home with them.

Colleen Murphy Head Shot

Colleen Murphy

The one statement that Colleen made that I will always remember went something like this: “You have to be very careful how you deal/speak with one another (as colleagues/couples), because each person brings a history with them to the fire service.  It is this history that will determine how an individual may react on a call for service.”   Here is an example:  A firefighter grew up in an abusive, alcoholic home.  He/she reacts inappropriately at this scene because it was an all too familiar childhood scenario.  In years past, we would give that person “their space” or even gossip about this behavior.  Today, we must make a commitment to having an honest conversation by asking questions not only of the first responder, but also those that lift them up.

Back to Judy’s disappointment about the standby.  I now realize that it was my duty to immerse her in the culture/jargon of the fire service way before she was left to eat this awesome meal that she created out of love- all by herself.  Communication is the key to ensure a healthy 1st responder relationship, marriage, etc.  It is especially important to talk about the tough issues such as behavioral health.  The firehouse gets us for 2-3 days a week, the rest is spent with those who are closely invested in our welfare.  If you don’t feel right- share that with your best friend(s).

The Zac Brown Band penned a song titled Last But Not Least which tells the story about someone who re-commits to a relationship after realizing he/she left a significant other behind.  Listen and follow along with the lyrics I provided.  If this resonates with you-  challenge yourself to take a step back and reflect on what is most important in this world to you.  If you need further assistance, don’t hesitate to contact Colleen.  Most assuredly she can give you a nudge in the right direction.  Until next time-

Be well,

Tim

 

 

 

“Last But Not Least”

There ain’t enough of me to go around Got all kinds of reasons To be all over town Spread thin and broken down Everybody wants a piece Oh darlin I’m afraid You’ve been last but not least Everyone I love the most Has to take what’s left of me I put it all together But I left out one big piece I put you last But you’re not least Nothing ever takes the place of you Sometimes things that may not matter Jump in front of things that do And your fine to stand in line While history repeats But oh darlin not this time Last but not least Everyone I love the most They deserve the best from me I put it all together When I found that missing piece You were the last But you’re not least I go left when I should go right I chase the dark when I see light I trip and fall down every time I try To walk that line

The sun comes up I look for rain I search for joy and I find the pain I swear I will not forget again Last but not least Last but not least Everyone I love the most Is gonna see the best of me I put it all together When I found the missing piece You were the last You were the last But you’re not least

 

Finding Balance

The following post was submitted by Craig Krsek that reflects on Tom Howard’s “The Art of Listening”

ILFFPS’s Faith Coordinator, Tom Howard wrote a Power Point presentation available on the ILFFPS website called, “The Art of Listening.” It highlights skills that are an integral part of peer support, but those that are not easily mastered or regularly employed in our task-oriented work environment. This article is meant to take a closer look at how this “Art” is needed to facilitate the balance between being a Firefighter and an effective Peer Supporter.

 

By nature, Firefighters are problem solvers. Functioning effectively in the role of Firefighter requires one to quickly assess the situation at hand, form a plan of action, and implement the steps needed to mitigate whatever situation we are faced with, all in a matter of seconds. From the most mundane to the most dynamic call, this is a repeated process that almost becomes automatic in our work. Working within an assigned company, Firefighters often complete this cumulative task with very little conversation, as each member of the company has a pre-assigned role.

 

Reminding oneself to slow down and take a deep breath, affords the mind an opportunity to process the information it is taking in, and in some cases, that act can prove to be lifesaving.

 

To be an effective Firefighter, one must be an efficient problem solver, who safely negotiates the delicate balance between the desire to act and the inherent safety risks we face. In our role as peer supporters, the ability to listen and allow ourselves to be present is a key component of the peer support interaction. If that effort is absent, the end result may be counterintuitive and potentially harmful to the process and individuals involved.

 

Instead of developing a plan of action, we as peer supporters need to be mindful that our role is to be available by listening and affording our brother or sister the opportunity to talk through the issue that brought about our interaction through peer support. As Tom Howard presented, using non-verbal gestures such as head-nodding and direct eye contact, in addition to positive, responsive body language, we as peer supporters can convey that we are engaged in the discussion. Re-framing what is said and asking open-ended and clarifying questions, as appropriate, will also support the development of a positive rapport during the healing conversation. To be an effective Peer Supporter, one must be able to listen and allow oneself to be in the conversation without controlling it, being mindful of our role as a facilitator within the peer support process and not necessarily just a problem solver.

Physical Wellness: Managing Stress

The following post was submitted by ILFFPS team member Kyle Matousek

It is no surprise that the job of a firefighter/paramedic is a stressful profession. The daily grind while on shift brings about absolutely no predictions of what you will do during that time. This is why managing stress and being mindful of stress causing circumstances is important to a firefighter. The ILFFPS is an organization that helps fire and EMS service individuals talk about things that may be bothering them. For example, a tough call, family issues, or just about anything they can not get off their mind. The ILFFPS is there when tough times are upon us, which is great and well needed today. In conjunction with that, there are ways to exercise our mind and body to become as prepared as possible for the stresses firefighters face everyday essentially learning to become proactive in the emotional wellness of firefighters.

 

As I attended the training to become a peer supporter we learn to listen, relate, and validate when talking with individuals on issues they may be dealing with. I realized this is something that does not need to just happen during rough times but also good times. The idea of “making it safe” and establishing an environment that people are willing to talk about anything whether good or bad is essential to managing stress. Simply knowing that there is always a shoulder to lean on is important for any human being. That is one way to help manage stress, develop that atmosphere for everyone to feel comfortable and great things can come. There is also learning to take care of yourself and your own mind and body.

 

Exercise is one of those things that I really enjoy talking about. I see many benefits to a program the helps people improve their physical well being. One major thing to note though, is that any physical fitness also has a major impact on the mind.

As we know, stress can lead to many chronic illness’s like depression, anxiety, IBS, and even lead to cardiac events. Becoming physically active can help eliminate those threats that stress can cause.

 

One thing I see very often is the grind that many face day in and day out. The twenty-four hour shift followed by part time work or family. I all too often see many firefighters forget or not have time to take care of themselves. An exercise program is perfect for many in that scenario. Here an hour a day can be established to really take that time to care for you and only you. We all know that a healthy you makes for a great firefighter, a great spouse and mother or father. It also allows for time in the day to forget about that daily grind, forget about the stress at home or anything else. It is a time to relax, take care of yourself and become healthier. In the end taking this one hour a day can have a major impact on your emotional wellness just as much as your physical wellness.

 

We will never be able to eliminate the stresses we face in the fire service, it is our job to face them and work through them. What we can do is work to learn what those stresses are and how to deal with them. There are simply things we just can not prepare for and that is when help is needed. However, there is a lot we can prepare for and learning to manage the stress we face on a daily basis is very important. A physical activity program is a great way to become proactive in your mental and physical wellness. Any physical activity is great, from walking for thirty minutes, yoga, weightlifting, and biking just to name a few. Get out there, get active and take care of yourself because it will help you to deal with the stresses we face. Together, we can become proactive in taking care of the most valuable asset on any department……YOU.

 

How Did I Get Here?

The following post was submitted by Rosecrance Florian Program Coordinator Paul Gardner, Jr.

On September 7th last year, at the rank of Deputy Chief with the Berwyn Fire Department, I retired after thirty-four and a half years in the fire service.  Just before I retired, I participated in a training centered on psychological support for firefighters. Little did I know, this training would cover so much more than just psychological support, including firehouse behavior, how incidents can/do affect us, family issues, and personal issues.  As the presentation progressed, I looked around. More and more of the group was becoming attentive, including me.

We sat enthralled at the ways people are affected, and what might cause attitudes when things don’t go according to how we want.  I thought, “Yep that is that guy over there,” or, “Oh and that’s him over there.” Then, I was hit with my “Oh, my” moment.  The presenter asked, “How many of you have heard, ‘When is dad going to work?’” This one hit home. My wife, Maureen, has told me a number of times the kids would ask this. I thought it was no big deal, that they were just looking to do things by themselves, but I began to realize that this phrase was linked to them feeling disconnected from me. Until this point, I hadn’t been able to see that some of what I was doing was messing up my family. I was guilty of trying the run home like the firehouse, being short with my family, and, most importantly, not being attentive to my wife. Why was this happening?

I would leave work, but I never left work at the firehouse. Over the last eight years I was on call 24/7, answering emails, doing reports, trying to fix things that went awry at the firehouse because I felt it needed attention right then.

I made some changes, and the tension began to ease.  I remember my wife telling me, “Quit trying to fix everything!” I didn’t realize she wanted  me to listen and not try to figure it out for her.  I think a lot of this “trying to fix everything” comes from our line of work.  People call us, needing something done or fixed right away. A vast majority of the time we go on incidents, we are there to take care of the situation where something has gone wrong.  So, I guess it is second nature to try to fix things, but home needed to be treated differently than work.

As I began to reflect on who I was as a firefighter and what that meant for me on and off the job, I began to see that my firehouse needed more honesty. My family life suffered for over six years, but I never told my co-workers. One of our immediate family members had an addiction along with mental health issues. This put a lot of stress on the household. And, how I handled this in the beginning was not the way I should have. I have learned a lot since then, and continue to. But, I didn’t let my co-workers know because, in my mind, I thought, “How could they accept me if I couldn’t run my own home?”

I had heard individuals come back from calls saying, “Yeah, it was another drug addict, another one with mental issues. Man this is ridiculous! If they want to die, then die.” But, probably due to my situation, I felt compassion for that person: “Do you know what’s going on in their lives and why this is happening?” Sometimes I’d hear, “No, I don’t care about them,” or, “It’s just another call, and I’m tired of these.” I never said it out loud, but these comments always made me wonder: “How could anyone in the firehouse that was having a problem come out and seek help when this type of talk was going on?

Thankfully, these comments were not the majority, but I would venture each department has some of this, and sadly it can damage the safety needed for peer support. On the other end of the spectrum, were firefighters on the ambulance and apparatus that showed compassion when handling patients and people needing us. It should be the norm that we put ourselves in the other person’s shoes when we are helping them. What a difference that makes in your perspective!

The more I thought about these negative reactions, the more I wondered if this attitude was due to having to go on an average of ten calls a day? Add to that shopping, cooking, and training, and I wonder if burnout, stress reaction, or injury is far away from any of us. How do we avoid burnout, then? I really feel that peer support is the absolutely necessary when it feels that there is no relief in sight. The life of a firefighter can be absolutely exhausting, if day in and day out we are running calls over and over, some of which are very bad.

So, with the encouragement of Matt Olson, Chief Pat Kenny, and my wife, I decided to attend the peer support class.

If you have seen the peer support video, Andy Perry stated he thought he had ultimate story, and so did I. But, when the introductions were to be made at the class, I saw that I was just another person in the class with incidents or occurrences that have happened in each of our lives.  I realized as the introductions were be done that others had way more instances of grief, bad incidents, personal situations that made mine not look as big.

At the end of the class Matt said to us, “Well, you all are now Peer Supporters, and we know you are ready to help those who need it.” I was like, “What? What can I do to help?”  Looking back a number of times at the training we were given and how that helped me, I realized that, yes, I can offer to help others.

The three main realizations I took away from the class were: First, that I could be open with my co-workers; second, that I should listen and not fix everything at home; and third, that I could be there for my peers when they need someone to talk to.

In September, I assumed to role of scheduling visits to Rosecrance.  This was very important for me, since I had previously had my family member at Rosecrance. I knew how important it was for people to feel accepted in the midst of their struggle, for people to have a place to open up, and for families to come visit their loved ones. Seeing this and being personally involved showed me I could be involved in helping our peers and how much this could mean to them.

Immediately after I started scheduling visits to Rosecrance, I discovered so many peer supporters that wanted to come visit multiple days throughout the month. Wow! Everyone was so flexible and willing to share their stories, and more and more peers that had not gone before, signed up. I know that Dan DeGryse and Rosecrance greatly appreciate us being able to visit with our peers that are there.  If you have not yet gone to Rosecrance you will see that we are greatly appreciated there!

In my quest to become a stronger Peer Supporter, I enrolled in the November Peer Support class in Downers Grove. It was one of the best things I have done lately!

It was terrific to see Chief Kenny there, get to talk to him, and know that he is involved in Peer Support.  Along with see Chief Kenny, I learned more about myself and got to meet some more great people within our group.  I have always felt you never stop learning and this was true at this class.

Tom Howard’s presentation “The Art of Listening” was fabulous, and showed me more ways to be able to interact with people and to listen better.  I recommend this Power Point for peer supporters to review as it will help you within the fire service, peer support, and life in general.  Take time to go through the Power Point and you will gain additional knowledge of how to listen, ask questions, and interact.  I feel too that this would be a great presentation/class for officers and chiefs to take.

Having overcome so many of my family’s tough situations, I love watching and helping other people overcome theirs. Listening, asking questions, and interacting with our peers can be invaluable in helping them remain strong men/women, who are ready to serve Illinois. Together, if we keep the faith, we can overcome even the worst things that come to us.