A Win for First Responders – AAC’s “Share the Load”

July 7, 2015

“Share the Load Program” earns top ASAE honors
American Addiction Centers’ toll-free 24/7 Fire/EMS Helpline

Written with input from the National Volunteer Fire Council The 2015 ASAE Power of (A) Gold Award went to the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) for its Share the Load program, a behavioral health program for firefighters, EMTs, and their families. With the program’s cornerstone response service, American Addiction Centers’ toll-free 24/7 Fire/EMS Helpline, the program offers resources to help individuals and departments address behavioral health.

The AAC Fire/EMS Helpline was the first of its kind, where first responders can call to seek immediate help for themselves, or a colleague, and reach a first responder or someone trained by first responders. In a strictly confidential environment, the hotline empowers first responders to connect with solutions clearly presented by someone who can relate to their issues like nobody else can. The phone line is invaluable in empowering first responders who find themselves at a critical or vulnerable moment. Not only does the Helpline make responder-savvy resources available at any time of day or night, but it can connect callers to everything from a concrete plan of action to a release valve for growing tension.

Share the Load is designed to help firefighters and EMS providers facing increased risks, as their career continues, for behavioral health concerns. Many of these concerns, and the list is long, are occupational hazards: anxiety, depression, burnout, post-traumatic stress disorder(PTSD), substance abuse, suicidal thoughts, stress, addiction, and then there are destabilizing life challenges, such as loss of loved ones and retirement. Sometimes all it takes is touching bases with an objective but concerned brother or sister who understands the special circumstances and is willing to act as a sounding board. The AAC Fire/EMS Helpline can provide this.

Departments across the country are just waking up to the seriousness of these issues, and they struggle against a culture that has traditionally looked for strength in denial. Chiefs are working just to broach some of these issues with their departments. In this climate, the NVFC gets credit for facing the problem openly, recognizing a workable solution, and rolling up their proverbial sleeves to put the program into action.

“The NVFC made a conscious decision to face the behavioral health challenges plaguing its members head-on,” said NVFC Chairman Kevin D. Quinn, “bringing them into conversation, drawing attention to the issue.”

Share the Load has received enthusiastic support from state and national fire and emergency service associations in disseminating the Helpline number and other educational information and resources, including copies of the Helpline poster. The cornerstone of the program, the AAC toll-free Helpline, averaged over 100 calls per month in 2014. This means that in a single year, over 1,200 callers reached out for help, and potentially, 1,200 or more jeopardized lives were changed for the better — or even saved.

These successes are recognized in the 2015 award. ASAE’s Power of (A) Awards, the association industry’s highest honor, recognizes valuable contributions on the local, national, and global level. The Power of (A) Awards “reward outstanding accomplishments of associations and industry professionals for their efforts to enrich lives, create a competitive workforce, prepare society for the future, drive innovation, and make a better world.”

“Although we in the Fire Service have promoted the ‘sharing of Trauma, Addiction etc.’ there is still the stigma attached — whether real or perceived,” says Helpline developer Mike Blackburn, CEAP, LADC-1, SAP. A retired Rhode Island Fire Department Battalion Chief, Blackburn developed the Helpline informed by his experience of the real needs of men on the front lines. “By setting this up as a ‘confidential phone line,’ we provided a means for a Firefighter to reach out, speak to a live Firefighter who is certified as a CEAP, and still maintain his/her confidentiality. Then we can find that First Responder the help they need, before it becomes a disciplinary issue, loss of rank or job, or, worse yet, suicide.”

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