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Peer Support for Commanders Fills a Void

Summer, the 1,000-pound black Morgan horse, stood 14 hands high in the round pen and looked at me as I opened the metal gate and stepped inside. My breathing quickened. I was terrified—13 colleagues from my command cohort stood outside the ring watching. It was my turn to work on my communication and leadership skills by using a lunge whip to get the horse to do what I wanted without saying anything. 

The half-day workshop with War Horses for Veterans, a Kansas City-area organization that promotes the therapeutic value of horsemanship for combat vets, was the last step in the commander-level peer support training developed by the Mid-America Regional Council (MARC). A cooperative council of government bodies in the metropolitan Kansas City region, MARC serves nine counties and coordinates a regional 9-1-1 system for 11. 

The training was intended as a final lesson in leadership and communication skills. The last exercise was to put the reins up on the horse’s neck and walk away toward the exit gate. If the horse followed, you’d built trust. If it didn’t, you hadn’t, and more coaching was needed. 

I walked to the side of the ring to meet the horse eye to eye, then back to the pen’s center to meet Jason Klepac, a program manager with War Horses for Veterans. Klepac told me to walk confidently to the horse, tall and with my shoulders back, stay at the front leg area, outstretch my arm and point my finger in the direction I wanted the horse to go, whip the air with the lunge whip in the rear area of the horse once, and then start walking in the direction of my outstretched arm and finger. 

Luckily the horse started walking as directed, which was not the case for all my colleagues. I saw how their leadership styles differed in the round pen. There were some who repeatedly whipped the air with the lunge whip and did not give the horse the chance to follow a prompt to change directions before barking the next order, indicating a micromanaging style. Others showed better leadership skills by giving the first order, letting the horse follow directions, and then praising the horse after it did what was asked. 

It was eye-opening not only to each of us in the pen but also to the observers. It gave us a chance to recognize our styles while Klepac gave us advice on how to improve. But it was also enlightening to see how participants’ energy and breathing could affect a horse’s demeanor. 

“If you walk in high-strung, the horse will sense it and become high-strung,” says Klepac. “But if you walk in calm, the horse will be calm. They are very sensitive.” 

Never Too Old

The equine experience followed a four-day classroom curriculum. MARC’s command-level peer-support training curriculum is designed and taught by Jennifer Prohaska, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in working with first responders. Training modules customized to the commander level cover tools for dealing with command stress, PTSD in first responders, suicide risk and assessment, responding to line-of-duty deaths, retirement issues and shifting identity, toxic leadership, practical applications of knowledge, and critical-incident stress debriefing scenarios. The training also incorporates guidelines from the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), and state-level peer-support confidentiality legislation.

Prohaska has years of experience helping individuals and response professionals cope with trauma. “It’s a common misperception that once men and women take on more administrative roles and leave the field, they become immune to major traumatic stress—that simply isn’t true,” she says. “By the time commanders reach that point in their careers, they could have 20-plus years of accumulated stress and trauma from working on the front lines, plus the added burden of chronic stress that comes with command responsibilities.”

Once commanders complete the training, they are eligible to join the commander-level peer support team. This 52-member team—believed to be first of its kind in the United States—includes members from EMS, fire, law enforcement, and dispatch. They respond to critical incidents to offer help to command-level leaders. While there are peer support teams in place for frontline staff, it’s not advisable for a commander to talk about personal issues with his or her employees. Commanders need to talk to colleagues on the same level they are, with similar stressors. 

The team defines a commander as someone with a rank higher than sergeant on the law enforcement side and at or above battalion chief on the fire/EMS side. Since the team’s inception in July 2018, members have deployed to critical incident stress debriefings 22 times. They have also fielded hundreds of calls from commanders all over the United States and Canada as a result of articles in practitioner publications and numerous conference presentations.  

Accessible, Practical, and Destigmatized

Peer support fills a need that cannot be met by typical employee assistance programs (EAPs), department psychologists, or chaplains. Peer support can be right after a call or even while still on scene. Peers do the same job and often understand each other’s stress in ways someone on the outside cannot. Peer support training augments other parts of overall mental wellness programs within agencies but is not intended to replace professional help. Peer support team members are trained to provide accessible, practical, and destigmatized support to personnel during times of work-related and personal crisis.  

MARC launched its command-level peer support pilot program with 12 commanders. The program has since grown into a team of 52 trained commanders led by a program planner, two cochairs (one each from Missouri and Kansas), and several team members, with oversight from Prohaska. The team is working to establish subcommittees to manage the workload, modeled after the MARC 9-1-1 team’s structure, which includes eight. The subcommittees track anniversary dates of suicides, court decisions, and other key events. Additionally, they provide support for funeral arrangements and family issues and offer social activities for networking. 

“In addition to the education and networking opportunities, the program allows me to grow personally and emotionally,” says J. Paul Davis, EMS chief for MED-ACT in Johnson County, Kan., a member of the inaugural commander peer support cohort. “I realized I don’t need to be detached from my employees to be successful as a commander. I have met commanders like me, who carry similar burdens from years of built-up trauma. The commander peer support team allows me a safe place to be vulnerable in a confidential, respectful environment that aids healing.”

Both the commander and 9-1-1 peer support teams are working to add marriage/partner retreats (with cooking classes) and financial health classes to the wellness portion of the program. Topics such as mindfulness and meditation, building resilience, surviving secondary trauma, and yoga for first responders are already included in the program’s continuing education, and team members are highly encouraged to attend. Both teams partner with First Responders Support Team–Midwest to provide frontline staff peer support and mental health retreats.

Recently we realized the LGBTQ+ community was not represented well on our peer support teams. We contracted with Inoru Wade, executive director of the Midwest Rainbow Research Institute, to provide a three-hour state-certified training to our teams and provided small rainbow lapel pins that can be worn on uniforms to denote a LGBTQ+-trained peer supporter and seen as a symbol of safety.

Call a Colleague

If you’re a commander who needs help, call the MARC peer support line at 816-701-8212 to speak confidentially to a colleague who understands your unique job duties. The men and women on this team stand ready to help in time of personal or professional crisis.  

Pam Opoka, MPA, ENP, is public safety training coordinator and peer support program planner with the Mid-America Regional Council (MARC). She has more than 25 years of experience in public safety and a master’s degree in public administration with certification in performance management. Pam is active in university research projects and work groups within the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) and Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO). She is currently cochair of NENA’s Wellness Committee Peer Support Work Group. 

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