On June 18, 2007, the Charleston Fire Department and the entire community suffered an unprecedented loss of nine firefighters in the Sofa Super Store fire. What followed would be a daunting task of helping a fire department reeling from this tragedy.
With little or no program in place to provide emotional support for our firefighters, the need to create a program to respond to our firefighters and their families was a top priority.
With the support of the mayor and Charleston City Council and the assistance of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, the S.C. State Firefighters Association, and the Charleston Mental Health Center, a team was assembled to begin the task of developing a counseling program that would become second to none.
Early on, we learned that the traditional method of providing behavioral health care would simply not work. Firefighters are proud people, and reaching out for help was something to which they were not accustomed. A decision was made to create the Charleston Firefighter Support Team, a group of three Department of Mental Health clinicians and a local retired firefighter.
They were supplemented on a part-time basis by peer team members of the New York City Fire Department, who brought their years of expertise to the new team in Charleston. In the second year of the team, 18 members of the Charleston Fire Department were trained as peer counselors and joined the team to provide the peer-level intervention so important to the success of the program.
Working side by side daily with the other firefighters in the department, these peer team members identified those needing assistance, provided their support, and referred those needing clinical care to our team clinicians. In the first five years of the program, the team made more than 7,000 peer contacts, with nearly 10% of those receiving clinical care.
With the nationwide peer referral rate sitting at about 2% to 3%, it was obvious that the Charleston program was working.
Since the Charleston program was the only one of its type in South Carolina, we were called upon often to assist other departments throughout the state in their time of need. In 2012, the team lost its financial support from the city, and we faced a dilemma on how to maintain our existence.
We met and decided we had two choices: Either close up shop and go home with some feeling we had done our best, or form a nonprofit organization and raise money to sustain our program.
“A Leap of Faith” became our mantra as we decided to go out on our own to continue providing this much-needed and worthwhile program. We changed our name under the new 501(c)(3) nonprofit to the Lowcountry Firefighter Support Team Inc. to reflect the expanded geographical area we now serve.
Almost 11 years since our beginning, we now serve 14 counties in the coastal region of South Carolina. Our team has grown to more than 60 peer members and 16 clinicians. Our peer team members are all volunteers, comprising firefighters spread over our service area. Our clinicians include three clinicians from the Charleston Mental Health Center’s First Responders Assistance Program and 13 others in private practice who see our emergency services personnel and their families.
We are proud that our program has served as a model for other departments and states as we continue to grow. In addition to responses and assistance provided for critical incidents, our team offers a variety of services, including financial and marriage counseling, alcohol and substance abuse, parenting, anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder and many other maladies that affect many of us.
We are equally proud to have started a Lowcountry EMS Support Team last year comprising EMS personnel who share our love of taking care of our own and a new 911 Telecommunicators Support Team started this month to serve our brothers and sisters in the 911 centers around our region.
We believe we are good stewards of the support we receive and the money we raise through fundraisers and other events to sustain our team, but we could do so much more with additional help.
Please visit our team’s website at www.firefightersupport.org to learn more about us and to donate to our team. We also have many other programs that we offer through our training division and community outreach programs. There is also a listing of our fundraisers on the website detailing events that can be attended. We welcome visits to our headquarters in North Charleston or phone calls at 843-609-8300 to learn more. We need — and are grateful for — your support, and we welcome corporate and individual sponsors.
Gerald G. Mishoe is the executive director of the Lowcountry Firefighter Support Team Inc.