‘We see people at their worst’: First responders don’t have to deal with their mental health alone

Published: Sep. 27, 2023 at 5:23 PM CDT
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PEORIA (25News Now) - The people you call to help you in your frantic moments to confront your biggest fears are everyday people with feelings and emotions that they can struggle with.

“We see people at their worst,” said Peoria’s Assistant Fire Chief, Tony Cummings. “When we see them at their worst, and we’re trying to do our best to take care of them, sometimes it leans and weighs on us.”

Assistant Chief Cummings has had his fair share of difficult calls.

“I remember her big blue eyes and her blonde hair,” Cummings recalled. “But through that process of her losing her life, I kind of associated with it, and I’ve been on thousands of calls like that, but this one particular just stuck out with me. For about a year and a half, I would see her walking towards me out of dark hallways.”

Firefighters and police officers witness and deal with situations that most people have not and will not see in their lifetime. They often have the stereotype of being the most mentally tough people in the workforce.

“We look at our profession as one of the macho professions out here in the world today, and we think nothing really bothers us, but we go home, and we lean and weigh on some of the calls we’ve seen,” said Cummings.

But they don’t have to do it alone.

The Peoria Fire Department has a certified first responder counselor and a chaplain available for the firefighters to talk through the hard calls they respond to.

The chaplain program is new and duplicates the program at the Peoria police department, and the mental health program has been in place for almost five years.

Firefighter Tim Morrow has been with the department for 15 years. He says he decided to become a mental health advocate after his dad, a retired Peoria firefighter, was there when Butch Gudat died in the line of duty in 1983.

“I felt like if I need it, then probably other guys do, so I talked to my dad, and my uncle is retired off the fire department, so I talked to him, and they both said, ‘Yeah, it would have been nice back a long time ago to have it to be able to talk about your problems,’” said Morrow.

The fire department’s counselor, Colleen Worley, is a long-time friend of Morrow. She worked with him to bring the mental health program to the department.

Morrow recently went on one of the most mentally straining calls he has ever been on but says he’s glad Worley was there to help afterward.

Worley has been a counselor at the fire department for all five years that the program has been in place. She got certified specifically for first responders to understand the dynamics of their jobs to give them the full support they need. She says anything she can do to bring them joy and help them go out on the job to be the heroes they are will always be worth it.

“If they’re better for themselves and their families and they don’t feel like by the time they end this job, they’re broken and just a piece of who they used to be, that’s my goal. I want them to be whole, and I want them to be well,” Worley said.