Critical Role of Peer Support For First Responders ~ KANE’S KORNER

Joe Rizzuti, an active member of the Certified Peer Support Specialist Team serving police officers and first responders in Massachusetts, took the time to sit down with Kane to provide information on the history and development of the rise of peer support networks throughout the Commonwealth. Support comes in many forms, including critical incident support, education, one on one support, and residential care. Certified Peer Support Specialists are often the bridge between the first responder and the services needed including one of the most important form of support, a listening ear “that gets it.”

Kane believes first responders deserve our upmost respect as they venture out into the unknown to provide safety and support to our citizens. Although this type of work may be rewarding, the stress these men and woman are under is palpable. Encouraging community caretakers to prioritize their own mental health has been a taboo subject over the years. Basically many first responders in their course of their duties may have normal reactions to the abnormal events they are exposed to daily.

Peer support specialists are former or current members of their first responder community that support their fellow professionals through the stresses and emotions associated with seeing a lot of tragedy, navigating work life balance, and the politics of these positions. For example Joe Rizzuti was on the job with the Revere Police Department and prides himself in assisting members of the law enforcement community experiencing job stress. Kane recognizes that people like Joe truly live a life of service to others.

Kane asked what exactly is a Peer Support Specialist? According to Wikipedia, “a peer support specialist is a person with “lived experience” who has been trained to support those who struggle with mental health, psychological trauma, or substance use.”

Their personal on the job experience provides peer support specialists with expertise that professional training cannot replicate. Kane and Joe talked in detail about how first responders feel most comfortable talking with first responders about the normal challenges of the job as well as how it effects their personal life.

Peers with lived experience are able to relate to their experience in a different way than professionals not on their job. Of course it is very beneficial for a first responder, peer specialist, and Licensed clinician to work collaboratively to provide support and resources when mental health is concerned, but collaboration is key. In fact in 2007, the Department of Health and Human Services recognized peer support services as an evidence-based practice

Examples of stress may include the death of a child, responding to a car accident where people your age or the age of your children are killed. Many first responders do not want to discuss these situations with their family since they do not wish to upset them or maybe friends not on the job would not understand. Either way sitting alone with these thoughts can be lonely and leads to acute stress symptoms and feeling alone. Observing and being involved in traumatic events may also be the cause of Post-Traumatic Stress.

Symptoms such as insomnia, hyper vigilance, and irritability are normal reactions to these events, however, many first responders don’t discuss these symptoms in fear of being considered unstable. Normalizing these reactions in a collaborative way has a great benefit to the first responder. Kane thought about how much he values talking to others with like experiences; there is a solid connection that is hard to find or replicate.
Joe explained to Kane that the Merrimack Valley was truly blessed to have pioneers doing peer support work well before it was an organized vocational career.

He credited both Michael Miles and Tom Fleming both former officers of the Lowell Police Department for their tired-less efforts supporting officers through critical incidents and other challenges of the job. In fact Michael Miles has worked as a professional counselor for years assisting first responders throughout the Merrimack Valley. This was all happening in 1988. Another well-known Pioneer.Ed Donovan from the Boston Police Department. was well known for discussing critical incidents and developing stress teams.

Kane learned that Joe Rizzuti also worked one day a week at the On-Site Academy which is a short term, intensive residential treatment center for rescue personnel who may be temporarily overwhelmed by the stress of their job, suffering from work-related cumulative or delayed critical incident stress, or experiencing an acute, transient reaction to an incident. The goal of the On-Site Academy ( is to lessen the impact of the event or events, and to accelerate recovery. Available on a continuous basis, the On-Site Academy is dedicated to maintaining the health, safety and wellbeing of rescue personnel and their families, and to helping restore them to service in their chosen field, as soon as they are able.

Kane would like all first responders to feel supported in their profession and have the resources needed to feel appreciated, valued, and understood. To those of you who serve in the military, law enforcement, fire department, dispatch and EMT, we salute you and please know it is healthy and normal to reach out for support. If you would like the support of a Certified Peer Specialist please reach out to the Massachusetts State Peer Support Network (MPSN) through MEMA at 508-820-2000. For information on the On-Site Academy, please call 978-874-0177.

Remember we see you and appreciate you.

Best Regards

Kane Peaslee, Woof ◊