RIO RANCHO, NM (KRQE) – In less than a month, a group of metro-area, first responders will undergo more behavioral health training to better help their brothers and sisters in the field.
It’s part of a peer support program organizers say could even save lives. That’s not to mention help emergency responders better help themselves so they can better serve the public.
“You just don’t realize, at points, what it does to you.”
Rio Rancho Firefighter Richie Alderete didn’t anticipate the emotional hazard when he first donned a helmet in hopes of helping others.
“I kind of looked at this job when I got out of the academy as, ‘I’m going to save lives’ and that’s all it was,” said Alderete.
Ten years later, he can’t imagine doing anything else, but that wasn’t always the case.
“A bunch of pediatric codes one after another kind of made me second guess my career at points,” Alderete said. “I don’t want to take anything from this because it’s still the greatest job in the world to me, but watching kids pass away is something I’ll never get used to.”
There’s one, in particular, that stands out.
“It was 3:13 in the morning. I remember going in and seeing this baby on the floor. The mom was pretty nonchalant, like it didn’t really bug her,” said Alderete.
“We started doing CPR on the child and, long story short, we lost the kid. And had it not been for my captain at the time…”
Alderete’s eyes fill with tears.
“I haven’t relived this in a long time,” he said, his face buried in his palm.
It’s been more than five years.
“I think this is the day that sticks out the most because I found out my wife was having an affair that day,” Alderete said. “That was a bad day for me.”
Alderete kept going and, thanks to his captain, he didn’t have to go it alone.
“That guy — he’s an angel,” said Alderete.
Now, there are “more,” thanks to a new peer support program for first responders. It’s an initiative organizers say developed out of necessity.
“We certainly don’t want to lose a firefighter from a suicide or early retirement,” said Rio Rancho Deputy Fire Chief Paul Bearce.
Paul Bearce of Rio Rancho Fire teamed up with Bernalillo County Fire Chaplain Bill Henson to create the program, upon realizing they were both looking to meet the same need.
“For me, personally, it was the fact that I had members of the department coming to me and I really didn’t have the resources to give them,” explained Bearce.
Now, he does. A number of first responders from across the metro were recently trained in basic crisis intervention.
People like Captain Ryan Floersheim are now able to talk one on one with struggling first responders.
“We found that our training is coming in more useful than even we expected,” said Floersheim.
Floersheim signed up after fellow firefighters helped him through a difficult time of his own. He and his wife faced fertility issues.
“After many years and many tens of thousands of dollars, my wife and I got pregnant through invitro fertilization,” said Floersheim.
A short time later, they learned they were expecting triplets. Yet, at 22 weeks, something went terribly wrong.
“We had to make the life-changing decision to save her life by letting our three sons go,” Floersheim said. “Even after that, I still had to come to work and take care of other peoples’ children and, somehow, find a way to disconnect,” he said. “People expect us to be at 100-percent every single time.”
Organizers say this peer support program makes it okay to ask for help, encouraging first responders to break down a cultural barrier that tells them, ‘You’re tough, you can handle it.’
Floersheim and others on the peer support team aren’t qualified to offer therapy, he says they can offer resources. While there was a city-sponsored program available before this new initiative, participants say it wasn’t very effective, partly because providers didn’t really understand first responders. The peer support team, on the other hand, is made up of emergency responders who know what it’s like to see trauma day in and day out.
After all, “When we take off all of this, all of our uniform, we’re just human beings, too,” said Floersheim.
Human beings who could, sometimes, use an angel.
“I don’t think I would have made it through without him,” Alderete said.
A grant from the Department of Homeland Security is helping to fund the program, but organizers say it’s technically not associated with any one public safety department.
All photos featured in piece are courtesy Rio Rancho Fire Department and Deputy Chief Paul Bearce.