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N.Y. county EMS board helps create support system for first responders

The Saratoga County team’s goal is to help firefighters, EMS providers and police with mental health needs as soon as possible after critical incidents

By Shenandoah Briere
The Daily Gazette

SARATOGA COUNTY, N.Y. — Following a fatal car accident in Corinth in October, Derek Briner, Corinth assistant fire chief and deputy director of Corinth EMS, knew members of the department needed help.

They needed someone to talk to.

He said when members of the department first walked in to meet with Saratoga County’s recently formed peer support team they were a little distanced and not sure of what to expect. But then they all got talking.

“I’d say within the first 10 minutes of interaction you saw people loosening up and expressing their feelings, getting those demons off their shoulders.”

The Saratoga County Peer Support Team is a collaboration between the county’s Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services and the Saratoga County EMS Council. Its goal is to help first responders as soon as possible with any mental health needs they may face following critical incidents, according to a press release from the county.

The team is made up of 50 people from various agencies across the county, including firefighters, paramedics and police officers. The team is led by the county’s Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services Commissioner Dr. Michael Prezioso.

Prior to the support team, there had been some peer-to-peer happening but Prezioso said the county and EMS council brought in some training through The International Critical Incident Stress Foundation.

The county is also using a communication platform to direct resources.

The support team comes at a time when departments across the county have had to deal with some tragic incidents, including multiple fatal vehicle accidents and suicides within first responder agencies.

Prezioso said the department can reach out to the team, but if there is a large incident that occurs the team will also reach out to see if anyone needs help.

When the team goes to a department to speak with members, it first gets a snapshot of what occurred and discusses the impact it had on people.

“We provide some education around typical responses to traumatic events,” Prezioso said. “We try to normalize people’s experiences. People will respond in all manners in different ways but there are some common themes.”

Common signs of distress include:

  • Increase irritability
  • More isolated or withdrawn
  • Sleep and eating disruption

It is estimated that 30% of first responders, compared to 20% of the general population, will develop behavioral health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, according to a 2018 bulletin from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration.

A member of the team will continue to follow up to see how people are doing, Prezioso said.

Prezioso, who is both a paramedic and psychologist, said if anyone needs further assistance they would be directed to him and in turn he can refer them if needed to other services.

On top of providing peer support following tragedies, the group aims to provide training to aid first responders who get a call to deal with someone that has mental health needs.

“How can we craft a way to interact and engage that person to get them the support they need in turn,” Prezioso said.

He said the team could also provide training in areas like de-escalation.

Briner said the support team has filled a hole that has been lacking.

“Without my team and my responders we can’t do our job and if this team can save one of those responders from the demons that haunt us all that’s worth more than anything I can explain,” he said. “You can’t put a dollar amount on a human life.”

He also said it’s time that first responders focus on their mental health needs.

“There is help out there,” he said. “Holding things in is not the answer.”


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