HARRISONBURG — During his 12-year career as a Harrisonburg firefighter, Gene Thompson heard story after story about his fellow first responders throughout the country killing themselves.
Roughly 115 firefighters and emergency medical providers committed suicide in 2017, according to the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance.
“I really got tired of seeing the number of suicides by first responders,” he said. “That number is unacceptable.”
To help lower the number, Thompson and his wife, Sarah Thompson, founded Virginia First Responder Support Services in April 2017 to help train first responders to be peer support mentors.
On Saturday and Sunday, the husband and wife held a two-day training session for first responders in the Shenandoah Valley.
In addition to his 12 years as a paid firefighter, Gene Thompson has about two decades of experience with volunteer fire stations. He is currently a volunteer in Verona and Weyers Cave.
He combines his knowledge as a first responder with his wife’s experience as a counselor.
Sarah Thompson graduated with an undergraduate degree in psychology from Bridgewater College in 2007.
In 2014, she earned a master’s in counseling from Walden University. She’s now working on a doctorate in human and social services.
Since starting, the couple has trained roughly 150 first responders in the state, including police officers, firefighters, rescue squad members and dispatchers.
In Harrisonburg and Rockingham County, 31 first responders have been trained.
The couple plan to add to the list of trained emergency personnel this year thanks to a $29,000 grant from the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health. The grant allows first responders to sign up for the class for free.
In addition to this past weekend’s session at the Rockingham County Administration Center, they will hold training sessions in Chesapeake, Rockbridge County and Salem. They are open to any first responder.
The Thompsons say that after a serious call, first responders often meet in a group setting to discuss their feelings. In many cases, they say, the responders don’t open up because they are afraid of appearing weak.
With peer support, first responders are able to talk one-on-one with a peer. The program emphasizes that responders should get to know their co-workers.
“Be personally invested in them,” Gene Thompson said.
By knowing them, Sarah Thompson said, it will be easier to notice if something is bothering them, whether it’s a previous call or a problem at home.
“You learn their base,” she said. “When they come in and they’re totally different, that’s a red flag.”
While those who go through the training aren’t counselors, they know where to refer a peer if counseling is needed.
Lt. Chris Tusing of Rockingham County Fire and Rescue participated in the weekend session.
He said he hopes that he can be someone who his peers feel comfortable talking to. He said a lot of first responders try to shield their families from what they see while at work so it’s best for them to talk about work at work.
“It’s not something you bring up at the dinner table at home,” he said.