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Omaha Offers Peer Support for First Responders

Post-traumatic stress is a mental health condition triggered by experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening or terrifying event. It is often thought of as a disorder that only affects veterans who have endured combat; however, PTSD can affect anyone who has experienced trauma. This includes the brave men and women we typically turn to first after experiencing our own traumatic event.

Police officers and firefighters are generally the first people we call when tragedy strikes. They are the people who come in to save the day, but what happens when the people who are responsible for being the first responders begin to feel the affects of trauma exposure? Until last year, the city of Omaha has only seen 10 mental health disability claims since 1973. That is no longer the case. There are currently 6 cases pending among firefighters and police since 2014.

In 2013, the Omaha Police Department started a peer support program. The program now has roughly 30 police officers who have received over 40 hours of training by national law enforcement behavioral experts. These peers are trained to offer counsel to their fellow officers, and assure them that they are not alone.

Last March, an Omaha firefighter completed suicide about two months after he had responded to the International Nutrition building collapse that killed two men and injured nine others. His wife has said that she can’t say for certain what led to his death, she does think that job stress may have played a role.  The rest of 2014 didn’t get much easier for the Omaha Fire Department.

“We had a bad run of about three or four months,” said Chief Bernie Kanger. “It culminated in the need to address mental health and taking care of our members.”

Recently, the Fire Department has also begun to train peer specialists for a similar peer support program. They currently have 15 firefighters trained to offer help to peers struggling with PTSD.
Symptoms of PTSD may not surface immediately; sometimes it is months before symptoms appear. These symptoms my include lack of sleep, irritability, avoidance of places or situations similar to the trauma, increase use of alcohol, and drug abuse. Factors such as genetics, upbringing, and personality all play a role in the likeliness to develop and severity of PTSD.

“This is something we have to be cognizant of from the day an employee starts here into retirement, said Kanger. “We all have our crosses to bear. It’s part of the line of work.”



About Jill Sauser, The Kim Foundation Project Coordinator

Jill graduated with a degree in Journalism and a minor in Speech Communication from the University of Nebraska at Omaha in 2009. During her time at UNO, she completed a two year PR practicum program where she worked with numerous nonprofit clients including the MS Society, The Archdiocese of Omaha, The Omaha Food Bank, and YWCA. Since becoming Project Coordinator at The Kim Foundation in April 2014, she has become an active member of the Nebraska State Suicide Prevention Coalition, The Omaha Metro Hoarding Taskforce, the Early Childhood Mental Health Coalition, the Metro Area LOSS Team, and is helping lead a community-wide health improvement initiative with the Douglas County Health Department called, “Just Reach Out,” which is focused on improving the people’s view on mental and behavioral health treatment.