Peers help colleagues to cope after tragedies

Published 1:13 am Thursday, February 25, 2010

Community Editor

Who do law-enforcement officers and firefighters turn to in the wake of a devastating tragedy, such as 9/11 or the fatal shooting of Deputy Charlie Brown with the Martin County Sheriff’s Office?
One another, according to Lalla Sidbury, chairwoman of the East Carolina Critical Incident Stress Management Association.
The association is a nonprofit organization comprised of trained peer debriefers from public-safety departments across the region. Its contact center is the Williamston Fire-Rescue-EMS Department. If support is needed for officers following harrowing or tragic situations, ECCISMA members may be reached by calling the organization’s toll-free number, 1-800-545-7781.
Sidbury said ECCISMA is peer-driven because studies show public-safety officers open up more and can better cope with tragedies when they are talking to someone who has the same rank and has been through the same thing.
“It helps individuals go back into the workplace and recover,” Sidbury said.
ECCISMA members were called in for help following the death of Brown on Dec. 8, 2009. Brown, a narcotics investigator, was killed — in the line of duty — by gunshot wound during a shootout with Jerry Lee Pace Jr. outside a Williamston residence.
According to ECCISMA, the first 24 hours after a shootout, or any other incident, would be considered the “defusing” period.
Defusing is peer-to-peer intervention done within the department. In the case of Brown’s death, Williamston police officers and Martin County deputies directly involved in the shooting were defused the same day.
“It’s an opportunity to talk about it quickly after the accident,” Sidbury said.
Several days later, the Williamston Police Department and sheriff’s office held a “debriefing” for all the law-enforcement officers within the agencies, as well as their spouses and emergency responders.
Debriefings are a chance for anyone directly or indirectly involved in the crisis to meet with a mental-health professional and trained peers from outside the department, Sidbury said.
Defusings and debriefings are optional, unless made mandatory by a ranking officer.
“Because of my involvement (in ECCISMA), anytime there is a stressful incident, I highly recommend that my officers go through the process. At times I’ve made it mandatory,” said Steve Smith, Williamston’s police chief and an ECCISMA executive board member.
Smith said the process doesn’t work for everyone, but, if feedback is anything, public-safety officers are buying into it.
“So many officers I know, not only within my department, but others I’ve helped, have told me how much they thought it helped them,” he said. “That is one of the biggest rewards as far as being a debriefer myself.”
Anyone interested in becoming an ECCISMA member must take a two-day course in basic training and be affiliated with a traditional service group represented by law enforcement, fire, rescue, EMS, telecommunications or mental health.
Smith said that when he started his career as a law-enforcement officer some 26 years ago, options like ECCISMA were not available.
“You had to handle it yourself, for most part,” he said.
When Jimbo Peele, ECCISMA vice chairman and Williamston Fire-Rescue-EMS chief, told Smith about the service, he knew he had to get involved.
“Knowing the things I had seen and done in my career, I saw a need for it,” Smith said. “It affects all of us to one extent or another.”
He said some accidents, in particular, call for an intervention.
“Anything with wrecks, where you have fatalities, especially with children involved, everybody usually takes that pretty hard,” Smith said.
Sidbury said ECCISMA averages about 12 interventions a year.
“We get called upon a lot,” she said.
Sidbury said the organization boasts more than 100 peer debriefers, a far cry from when ECCISMA was founded in the late 1980s.
Sidbury was introduced to the concept of incident stress management at two separate training sessions in Greenville and Wilson. At the time, she was the human-resources director for the City of Washington.
Sidbury said she and several of her peers came back so impressed by the seminars that they put together a group of “movers and shakers,” including former Washington Fire-Rescue-EMS Chief Hugh Sterling Jr., New Bern Fire-Rescue Chief Bobby Aster, Capt. Chuck Owens with the Greenville Fire and Rescue Department and Peele.
“We were so overwhelmed. It was a new concept in North Carolina,” Sidbury said.