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First Responder Peer Support Training Seeks to Lessen the Load

First Responder Peer Support Training Seeks to Lessen the Load

Upstate Warrior Solution (UWS) partnered with Bob Gamble Counseling to offer peer support training to law enforcement, coroners, fire, and EMS personnel on August 9 and 10 at the Rupert Huse Veteran Center in Greenville. Thirty-five first responders from 14 agencies across the Upstate left the training equipped to better address service-related stress and trauma at the peer level.

An initiative of UWS’s First Responder Program and sponsored by North American Rescue, this two-day training not only taught participants to identify stressors and signs of critical burnout but also to support each other through peer counseling.

Greenville PD officer Aaron Bowles, says he attended the training because of the personal impact of peer support in his own service. After turning down a crisis debriefing opportunity at his prior agency in 2016, Bowles says he later realized talking about his experience was the healthiest way to address it. “I want to make sure others can benefit like I did,” he says.

As a military veteran and first responder, Bowles has seen more than most. He served 6 years in the Navy with a deployment to Afghanistan and has been in public service for 14 years, 12 in law enforcement and 2 as an EMT. “The things we experience are profound,” he shares. “First responders, health care workers – we’re asked to be ‘sin eaters.’ We encounter people on their worst days, and we assume a portion of it. It’s a heavy burden to bear. And if that weight isn’t dealt with, we won’t last.”

From Bowles perspective, peer counseling is a tool that should be used more frequently than it is among first responders, not just in the wake of critical or fatal incidents. “On any given day, we can go from a domestic violence situation to a fight-in-progress and then to child abuse call. It all takes an emotional toll. What I’m concerned about is, what happens over 5, 10, 30 years of that? We have to make sure our people are okay and have a healthy way to deal with that stress day to day.”

At his prior agency in North Dakota, Bowles was part of organizing a training to help staff identify critical burnout among their peers. He attended UWS’s training hoping to gain practical tools to help others manage that heavy load. “My biggest takeaway is that being present and caring is the most important, effective way to help a peer who’s struggling,” Bowles shares.

Rather than utilizing role play exercises, instructor Bob Gamble separated participants into groups of three to apply what they learned to real-life experiences. “Sure, it was uncomfortable,” says Bowles. “But it forced us to fulfill the role immediately with something that’s unique and real.” When asked if he found any personal benefit from the triad breakouts, Bowles said yes. “When you discuss traumatic events, there’s a healing process that takes place. Time doesn’t heal all wounds, but talking about it does. Every time I talk about it, it gets a little better.”

Bowles left the training eager to be a resource for his peers, confident he can not only identify an issue but actually help address it before it becomes a problem.

This month’s training is the first of many to be offered through UWS’s First Responder Program. Intended to work in concert with similar training through SC FAST and SC LEAP, UWS’s program intends to fill gaps in the local Upstate community by equipping first responders to provide peer support on a daily basis. A secondary goal is to equip former and retired first responders to serve as mentors for peers transitioning into the civilian workforce. Ultimately, UWS aims to build a network of like-minded first responders–former, retired, or actively serving–who want to stay engaged and provide support to others.

A special recognition to the following agencies; your participation in this inaugural training shows your commitment to the well-being of the individuals in your agencies! Spartanburg County Sheriff’s Office, Anderson County Sheriff’s Office, Fountain Inn PD, Mauldin PD, Simpsonville PD, Laurens PD, SLED, Greenville PD, Greenville Fire Department, Greenville County Sheriff’s Office, Greenville County Coroner’s Office, Greenville County EMS, Prisma EMS, and Probation and Parole.

For more information or to get involved in UWS’s First Responder Program, email