PHOENIX - The Phoenix Fire Department has launched a new peer support program as part of its continued effort to improve mental health awareness .
Forty-two department personnel, including civilians, chiefs, dispatchers, and firefighters have received training to offer support to their colleagues who need a shoulder to lean on, or help accessing resources to assist them with their mental health needs.
Volunteers are prepared to receive calls or emails from other fire personnel who may be dealing with stressful situations or need support for other "every day" issues.
The development of the program is one of sixteen recommendations made by a joint Phoenix Fire Department and fire union mental health task force in 2010.
The task force was established after four firefighters killed themselves in a span of seven months.
One additional suicide occurred after the task force was created, according to John Prato, a firefighter who co-chairs the mental health task force.
The peer support program launched earlier this month, according to Prato. And it seems to be working.
"The phone calls started immediately," said Joe Gonzales, a Phoenix fire captain who volunteered to be a member of the peer support group. "It's bittersweet. It's a good thing because you hate to see (people) going through a stressful situation, but at the same time, it's nice to know that we have some resources to help some people out."
"It feels good to be a part of something like this," said Johnny Johnson, a fire engineer who volunteered to become a peer support group member. "It's a great opportunity for us…to help our own with some of their struggles."
Johnson said he volunteered because has dealt with some of his own hardships in life, and he also knew one of the firefighters who committed suicide, Shaun Johnson .
"He was full of life," Johnny Johnson said. "(He) liked to have fun, always smiled, easy to get along with," he said, explaining how surprising it was to learn Shaun Johnson had taken his own life.
"It can happen to anyone," he said.
"I figured it would just be a way to help someone else in need," Johnny Johnson said.
Prato said the mental health task force has more plans for the future. The task force is aiming to complete all of its sixteen recommendations by the end of 2013.
He said the next goal is to develop a program that reaches out to the retired fire community and the families of fire personnel.
He said a plan for a resiliency program aimed at preventing stressors is also in the works for the immediate future.
While peer support program is available only to fire personnel on the website firestrong.org , the task force has made some other mental health tools available to the public on the same website.