By Liz Neely
The San Diego Union-Tribune
SAN DIEGO, Calif. — Police and firefighters are trained to deal with tragedy, but sometimes the stress of the job or the horror of a particular crime can wear them down, no matter how time-hardened they are.
That's when peer support — used by law enforcement agencies from Carlsbad to Chula Vista — is most needed. The concept was born some 30 years ago to help public safety workers cope with the more gruesome aspects of the job.
Though the approach differs from agency to agency, the general idea is the same: Give police officers, firefighters and others the opportunity to talk to someone who can relate to what they're going through, confidentially and without judgment.
The California Highway Patrol and Cal Fire have peer support programs, as do most cities in the county. Some, like the county Sheriff's Department, offer it for on-the-job and personal issues. The San Diego Police Department uses it mostly for critical incidents that involve death.
Those that don't have a formal program, such as Coronado and National City, are considering creating one.
"Peer support is strictly stress management," said Maxine Lynch, who coordinates the program for La Mesa's fire and police departments and heads up the California Peer Support Association.
The idea was officially introduced about 30 years ago in Los Angeles, but officials say it has gained ground only in the last decade or so.
"Police agencies actually started to realize we are human, and started to accept the fact that it's OK to get emotional over certain situations," said Sgt. Norma Nares, peer support coordinator for the Sheriff's Department, which patrols unincorporated areas and nine of the county's 18 cities.
"For so long, it was the old TV adage that you get up, dust yourself off and you get right back to work," Nares said. "It was taboo to even discuss what you were feeling."
La Mesa's 12-year-old program is called in for work-related incidents, but also assists employees' families. Lynch was part of a team at the El Cajon base camp for crews fighting the Harris fire.
When La Mesa Police Officer Chris Rath was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer in 2002, peer support helped with unfinished home improvements, hospice care and, eventually, funeral arrangements.
"That was a huge turning point in how peer support was accepted in this department," said Lynch, who stayed with Rath and helped administer morphine to her in the days before she died.
Rath's mother wrote to the department after her daughter's death.
"In the last weeks of her life, two special officers took turns staying day and night to help me as she gradually slipped into an ever deepening coma — they were there when she died," Margaret Rath wrote. "I can't tell you what that meant to me and our family — we shall forever be in their debt."
Suppressing feelings can take a toll on public safety workers, sometimes leading to depression, disease, family strife and substance abuse, experts say. Peer support volunteers sometimes refer officers for professional medical help.
"Their exposure to trauma and ugly events and the ugly side of human nature goes way beyond anybody else's," said Nancy Bohl, director of The Counseling Team International, which provides psychological support services to public safety agencies.
Statistics are hard to come by, but officials say job stress prompts some to leave the profession.
Last year, Sgt. Scott Klocker, a 24-year CHP veteran who works in the Sacramento area, couldn't shake the tidal wave of emotions he experienced after an especially brutal case: a drunken driver killed six family members — two of them small children — returning from a baptism.
One of the dead children was the same age as Klocker's daughter. The mangled sport utility vehicle was the same type his family owned.
"These things start knocking your world off its axis a bit," said Klocker, who sought help when close friends told him he had changed.
He attended a weeklong post-trauma retreat that inspired him to develop a presentation about dealing with stress. He has talked to CHP cadets and officers around Sacramento, but hopes to take his message statewide.
"At the end of every (presentation) there is always someone who says, `Wow, I thought you were talking about me,' " he said.
Copyright 2007 The San Diego Union-Tribune
Peer support helps Calif. responders