FDNY Peer Counseling: Rewarding & Appreciated

After 9/11, the FDNY Counseling Unit recruited senior members of the department to provide information and educate firefighters about post-traumatic stress disorder.The FDNY Counseling Unit, under the direction of Malachy Corrigan, provides assistance to members seeking help with alcohol and substance abuse problems, but also provides a range of services to members and their families as they struggle with emotional, social and medical issues.After 9/11, the Counseling Unit recruited senior members of the department to provide information and educate firefighters about post-traumatic stress disorder. Thousands of active and retired FDNY firefighters and their families have benefitted from this and other such programs. One of the counselors is Phil Duncan, who recently retired after 23 years and served as a firefighter in Ladder 28 in Harlem and lieutenant in Ladder 134 in Rockaway, Queens. Duncan discussed his experiences over the past two years as a member of the Counseling Unit in an interview conducted by Harvey Eisner.

Photo provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency
Many firefighters who operated at the World Trade Center before, during and after the collapses of the twin towers suffered some type of post-traumatic stress disorder. The FDNY Counseling Unit has visited every city firehouse numerous times, paying particular attention to those that lost large numbers of their members on 9/11.

Firehouse: How did you become involved with the Counseling Unit?

Duncan: I was down at the World Trade Center Sept. 11 and 12. On Sept. 12, I got a message from Firefighter Ralph Esposito, who was a counselor at the Fire Department Counseling Unit. He asked me if I would be interested in helping at the Counseling Unit. I asked what does it involve? He said going around and talking to the guys in the firehouses and giving them information and educating them about post-traumatic stress disorder and problems that they may have with stress. I said OK, how many days a week is it? He said it probably will be seven days a week, probably about 15, 16 hours a day. I called him back and said yes, I would be interested in doing it. I was on light duty from an injury and a shoulder operation, so they put me into the Counseling Unit as my light-duty assignment on Sept. 14 or 15.

Ralph Esposito and I went around to the firehouses. We visited around 10 firehouses a day, talking to the guys, doing debriefings, and letting them know the effects of something like this on themselves and all the different problems that they might have as far as nightmares and anxiety. Malachy Corrigan, the director, and Frank Leto were looking for guys and Dr. Kerry Kelly (FDNY chief medical officer) was hoping to get 30 firemen, whether they were retired or light-duty or full-duty firemen, to go into the Counseling Unit, to go around and discuss with guys the problems that this will cause on themselves as far as post-traumatic stress. I had no experience with the Counseling Unit before 9/11.

Firehouse: Please describe what you did every day.

Duncan: The first week or two, I worked at the World Trade Center, digging like everybody else and searching for victims, but then I split the day. I tried to do a 16- to 20-hour day - for 10 hours, I would be down at the World Trade Center and the other eight or 10 hours a day I would go around to firehouses talking to guys. We would go to each firehouse and have the guys come into the kitchen, then we would sit down with them, talk to them, and let them know that the Counseling Unit is available for themselves and for their families. We would tell them that if anybody was experiencing any nightmares or sleeping difficulties, that this was a normal situation, to be experiencing nightmares. We would sit down and do debriefings with the guys. They would range from an hour or two per firehouse, and then we would go to the next firehouse. Mainly, we concentrated on all the firehouses that had losses.

Firehouse: When you say you did a debriefing, what would that actually be like?

Duncan: We would try to sit down with the guys and talk to them and get the guys to talk to us. We would have them explain to us what they saw and how it affected them - basically, you're trying to get guys to talk and to engage guys in conversation.

What I noticed the first three or four weeks was that guys weren't really talking. They were still in shock. We tried to engage guys into conversations by asking them what would you see and how about your brother over there and how about you, what were your experiences like. We found after about three weeks or a month that guys were willing to sit down and talk and vent.

We felt that probably the best thing they could do was to not isolate themselves, but to just tell their story, and we found that they felt good after they told their story. Then we had other guys telling about what they did and the guys felt a feeling of relief after the end of a conversation that we had. And then we would go on to the next firehouse.

We did this from about 8 o'clock in the morning until about maybe 10, 11 at night. Then we would go down to the World Trade Center to dig for as long as we lasted and do it again the next day.

We did that for about a week or two and then we realized that we had to make a choice at that point. We couldn't keep going on like that, so we decided to just concentrate on the counseling end of it.

Firehouse: Did most of the people come down to the kitchen?

Duncan: After the first three or four weeks, most of the guys spoke. Then I used a little trick. What I would actually do was almost put a guy on the spot in a friendly way and have the guy speak. And then we had just about every single guy and girl speaking to us as we were going through different things and trying to find out what everyone was doing on that day, on Sept. 11, and how it affected them.

What the guys were telling us was that they were having nightmares, sleeping problems and anxieties, and so they actually felt that it helped them when they talked about it. From talking to the experts in the field, they had said that this is definitely the best thing to do, for someone to let it out and not to hold it inside them. So that was our goal, to have guys speaking about that day and try to get it out.

Firehouse: Did many people approach you to get other help?

Duncan: After we spoke to them, gave them information at every single firehouse, after every single debriefing, there would always be several guys coming up to us afterwards and asking for additional help. I'm having a problem at home because I haven't been home in the last month, I've been so busy going to funerals, memorials and helping around in the firehouse preparing for memorial services or funerals - a lot of guys were starting to have family problems. Even right after, Oct. 11, only one month into it, we were already having that type of problem. And of course, then we saw it even more as time went on.

Firehouse: Where would you refer them? What help would they get?

Duncan: Immediately, we would tell the guys in the firehouse that they could go to the Counseling Unit. The Counseling Unit set up several satellites where they would have counseling. On Long Island, there was an office out in Brentwood. In Fort Totten, Queens. We had a location in Staten Island, an upstate New York location and, of course, the main headquarters in Manhattan. We did tell guys that they could go to any other counselor that they wanted to in their own neighborhood and Project Liberty would pay for it since they had funds provided. To date, we've had over 5,000 guys come into the Counseling Unit and another 900 or so guys have gone to their own counselors. Several hundred wives and children have also come to the Counseling Unit.

Firehouse: Are there still people who are off duty?

Duncan: There are still some people off due to post-traumatic stress disorder. Director Malachy Corrigan feels that about 125 firefighters are now suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder - some of them have gotten out of the job on disability, but several of them are staying on and working light-duty spots.

Firehouse: A tremendous number of members retired since 9/11. I understand that this program is all open to retired members. Are you finding that a lot of the members who retired right away are having problems?

Duncan: We're finding a lot of the retired guys are having serious problems. The counseling is available to them, but they feel that they're out of the loop. We put in an outreach program called Staying Connected, which is run by Firefighter Greg Smith and Kim Davis, who has a master's degree in counseling. She and Greg stay in touch with all the retired guys through different programs trying to bring them back into the fire department family because they feel like they're left out right now.

We do have several guys who have more or less fallen through the cracks and don't want to stay in this Staying Connected program. These are guys who are suffering from depression and anxiety. Several guys have post-traumatic stress disorder who are retired and aren't doing too well. Some of them have come in for counseling, but there are still several guys out there who decided for one reason or another not to come in for counseling. It's kind of a shame because these are the guys who need it. The guys in the firehouse on active duty have the benefit of having the support group right in the firehouse just by being one of the guys and hanging around at the kitchen table. It's probably the best therapy you can have.

On the other hand, guys who have retired, whether it was for a respiratory problem or because the money was there, they made a little overtime, things like that, and if they don't have anything else to go into after the fire department, these guys are probably doing worse than any other group of guys with the exception of maybe the liaisons or guys in firehouses that had direct losses, where a company might have lost 10 or 15 guys. That's another group, along with the liaisons, who are having serious problems.

In addition to going around and visiting the guys in the firehouses - I probably made somewhere over 1,100 visits to firehouses after 9/11 - Malachy Corrigan asked myself and John Marchini, who's a social worker at the Counseling Unit, to develop a liaison program. Right after 9/11, he wanted us to support the liaisons in doing what they're doing with the families.

Not only is the Counseling Unit working actively with the families like the widows and the children, but we felt that we had to reach out to these liaisons and their families. The liaisons are the guys who have been going to memorials, going to funerals, and now they're taking care of the widows and the widows' children. From being a liaison in the past for the families of Firefighter Pete McLoughlin and Firefighter Harry Ford, I found that it was definitely a good program to initiate, and so what we would do is have several meetings a week with the liaisons.

For the 343 FDNY members who died at the World Trade Center, only about 170 or 175 liaisons came to the Counseling Unit, so we didn't reach every single liaison, but we did get the majority of them. Basically, we would have meetings with them and we would discuss different things. We wanted to really see how the guys were doing and what we could do for them in the Counseling Unit. We offered them counseling and several of them went in for counseling.

Unfortunately, in the beginning, it was more of an administrative nightmare than emotional support. The liaisons were more focused on how to get time off because they needed to be at different things for the widows, like if a widow had to do paperwork or to go someplace else. Whether it was shopping or anything else, the liaisons wanted to be involved in every single thing. But then we had Christmas, and the liaisons were so involved in these things that after Christmas, I found that's when the liaisons really wanted to come in and talk. We had meetings, and I had three different cell phones so I had guys calling me up all the time talking to me.

We also had weekend retreats for the liaisons and their own families. We would take them away and provide counseling and support, and also just give them time to spend with their own families and children because we knew that they were so involved with the widows and the widows' families. After six or seven months, we had seminars for the liaisons. We explained to them that they could take a step back at that point and spend more time with their own families. We told them that based on past experiences, if liaisons didn't take care of their own families, they could end up in situations that they might not want to be in. We felt that the liaisons needed support, and the Counseling Unit felt that that was their job to give them the support that they needed.

Firehouse: Would you say that being a liaison wound up to be a heavy-duty job?

Duncan: I give those guys so much respect because they did an unbelievable job. Their mission was to take care of the widows and the families, and they did an unbelievable job doing it. Unfortunately, for some of them, it cost them their marriages and caused other problems, but the main group of guys seem to be doing OK. We were trying to tell the guys to take a step back, it's OK, and let the widows stand on their own two feet a little bit. This was after several months.

Some of the liaisons would call me up and tell me that they were still talking to a widow eight or nine or 10 times a day. We would tell them there was no need for that, you can call and check in to see how she's doing, but to call somebody eight or 10 times a day was way out of line, we felt. We tried to get guys to see the big picture, to see that they, of course, still had their own children and their own families to support, as well as the widow and the widow's family. We said that he had to do really a juggling act because he had his own family. He was also going to funerals and he had to go to work. It was really a matter of time. There wasn't enough time in a day to take care of all the things these guys were doing.

We also had the bagpipers. We had the funeral detail, or the Ceremonial Unit. We did debriefings out at Randall's Island (the fire department training academy) and for the dispatchers, and we did have several people come in who were down at the pier doing the notifications. These were groups that went above and beyond and definitely we felt needed the extra support from the Counseling Unit, so we did go around and try to touch bases with them, as well as in the firehouses that had direct losses. We felt that these were the main groups that we really wanted to concentrate on.

Firehouse: Have you found the same problems in every one of the firehouses?

Duncan: No, it's peaks and valleys. Basically, what we've seen is that some firehouses that were doing terribly in the beginning are now doing pretty well, and other firehouses that were doing pretty well in the beginning now aren't doing so well. These companies are sliding downhill pretty quickly. I feel that there are several different reasons for that. But before I even get into that, I'll tell you that in all these firehouses that had direct losses, let's say there were 60 or 65 firehouses, we have a counselor assigned to each one of these firehouses. We have two captains, Captain Joe Hands and Captain Dennis Asher, whose responsibility it was to match these counselors with a firehouse, and I would say we probably had about a 90% success ratio.

Of course, there will be some firehouses that didn't have a good match with the counselor and then we've tried to get them new counselors. But you have to understand in a firehouse that might have been doing pretty good at one point, several different things enter into over months. First of all, we were on automatic pilot for the first year, and a lot of guys didn't have time to really think about their feelings or to deal with their feelings because they were digging down at ground zero. Other complications entered into it. Complicated issues in the firehouse. Things that were out of our control. There's going to be a lot of emotions are going to run pretty high.

The interesting thing is we've had firehouses that didn't want anything to do with the Counseling Unit in the beginning and then we kept going back to them and talking to them, and now they're probably some of our better firehouses. But for the most part, 99% of the firehouses opened their arms to the Counseling Unit and still do. They have taken us right in. The brothers in the firehouses, they really enjoy when we come from the Counseling Unit into the firehouse because they do like to talk. If you asked me before 9/11 if this was possible, I'd tell you there was no way this would happen that the Counseling Unit would be so well accepted in the firehouses, but the guys do enjoy talking and venting. It's been an unbelievable program and very successful.

We go around to all the firehouses on the job and the guys will say well how are the guys doing and we'll say 90% of the guys seem to be doing pretty good, but that still leaves 1,000 guys that aren't doing so well. And, of course, if you have 1,000 guys that aren't doing well, that can create some problems in any particular firehouse. Most firefighters have an anger problem now after 9/11. We have short fuses and in a lot of cases it gets a lot of guys into trouble., like a "road rage" situation. You ask guys in the firehouse and they'll tell you that is probably the most common thing that's happened to them. Anger problems are definitely right on top of the list that we're seeing now.

Firehouse: How long will the Counseling Unit continue to visit the firehouses?

Duncan: We're hoping to do this for the next couple of years. If possible, we would like to keep visiting because every time we go into a firehouse, we could get at least one or two guys who want to come into the Counseling Unit or who feel the need for a member in their family to go into the Counseling Unit.

Things have slowed down a little bit in the Counseling Unit. However, the degree, the severity of the problems seem to have gone up. Guys that are falling through the cracks who have been ducking the Counseling Unit from the beginning, we're getting these guys, they're being ordered to come to the Counseling Unit or we have guys now with post-traumatic stress disorder. Most of the 5.000 guys that have come into the Counseling Unit came in because they had problems that we were able to nip in the bud. Guys that more or less avoided the Counseling Unit, these one or two guys who wouldn't come down, were the guys that we really had to see. The rest of the guys just had what we call "surface problems" that could be dealt with by a couple of visits in the Counseling Unit they.

Firehouse: Are there other people doing the same thing you're doing?

Duncan: Yes. Tommy Conroy (a recently retired firefighter from rescue Company 3) does the same thing I do. Tommy does the Bronx and I am involved in Queens and Brooklyn. I was up in Ladder 28 and when Tommy was in Ladder 14 I knew him. And we have several other guys doing it, including Dan McDonough (a retired Rescue 3 firefighter) and Joe Ball (also a retired firefighter). We're hoping to train more guys in the future.

Basically, the success of this program is that these are firemen who are going around talking to firefighters. The guys see that and they accept us immediately when we go into the firehouse, and then they listen to us because they see we're really just senior guys trying to give them good information, trying to steer them right.

I've never had a problem at all in any of the firehouses. The guys have been great. They roll out the red carpet for you. And now they know we're from the Counseling Unit. Before we even step in the firehouse door, they're yelling all guys to report to the kitchen because we have made so many visits. I've personally seen over 10,000 guys.

They ask us questions and right away there's a feeling of respect and trust. They want to know what we have to say and they believe us if we tell them to go to the Counseling Unit. In the beginning, after the first week and after we had seen let's say 200 or 300 guys, I would tell the other guys, you don't have to worry about being the first guy to go into the Counseling Unit because already 200 guys, so now you're not the first guy anymore. It became easier and easier. Now it's almost if you haven't gone, why not, what's your problem, why don't you just go in and you can straighten out a couple of little things that are bothering you.

Firehouse: Do you go back to see firefighters who needed help and who received it? Are they now OK? Are they still there or have a lot of them have retired?

Duncan: A lot of guys are still there, but there are several guys that have retired too.

Firehouse: Does anybody say anything to you like thanks for taking care of that?

Duncan: It's unbelievable the thanks we get - I remember you guys helped me out, I had a problem six months ago and you guys came to the firehouse, or I heard what you said about my kids having anxieties and I brought them in and now they're doing really well. In the firehouses I was in recently, guys felt that the Counseling Unit did a great job by intervening and going around and giving guys information.

We jumped right on this thing and really made a great effort to get out there and talk to all the guys, whether it was down at the World Trade Center or at the firehouses or Education Day (when every company reports once a year to the Training Academy). We made several videos that showed different situations that guys were going through and what to expect.

I would say overall the response to the Counseling Unit was unbelievable because, as I said, firemen who were on the back step for 20 years were going out and doing the talks. We didn't have clinicians going around with us. These were guys that were trained in post-traumatic stress disorder and critical incident stress debriefing. We have guys who were able to talk not only fire stories, but why it's so important to get the help that you need for yourselves and your families, and guys listened and guys appreciated it. At the end of our discussions, guys would come up and hug us or shake our hands or tell us how great we did and how much they appreciated it and it's still the same way today.

For me, more or less it was an unbelievable way to finish the job, going around and seeing 10,000 guys and doing 1,100 visits to firehouses because, of course, I never expected that I was going to be in this position, in the Counseling Unit at the end of my career, but it turned out to be an unbelievable experience and very rewarding. I tell guys that I should have done this at the beginning of my career, going around to all the firehouses and meeting all the guys, but this is how it worked out. But it's a great field to be in this peer counseling. It's very rewarding and the guys really appreciate it.

A lot of guys won't go in for counseling and we tell them it's only a tool. It's not that you have to go in for counseling as long as you're doing the things that you have to be doing, you're making the kid's basketball game or the kid's softball game or you're coaching again or you're going out for your runs or your weightlifting or you're doing things around the house or you're doing your side job. It's a guy who has isolated himself, a guy who more or less is still stuck in the 9/11 syndrome - these are the guys we're concerned about.

I tell the guys in the firehouse that I was at the 60th year anniversary of Pearl Harbor survivors down at the Intrepid on Dec. 7, 2001. I tell these guys in the firehouse this story because it's so important that the Pearl Harbor survivors now they were 80, 82, 84 years old and there were maybe seven or eight guys who were giving their speeches that day and each guy giving a speech had tears in his eyes. This is how powerful post-traumatic stress disorder is and this is what we're up against. What we went through, a lot of guys are going to have the same feelings 60 years from now when they're telling their grandchildren the story about the World Trade Center. It's very powerful. I realized at that point that to get counseling is such an important thing because a lot of these old timers, they didn't believe in counseling. Of course, it was a different era then. And now, especially after 9/11, it's very acceptable, even in the fire department.

We learned from Oklahoma City. We had their experts come into the Counseling Unit. They did a five-year study and they gave us the results. They told us how the drinking is going to be a problem and marriage problems. We saw all of those. Also, we're seeing that anger is another problem. The interesting thing was we had so many more guys come in for counseling as opposed to Oklahoma City and that was kind of surprising to us.

As far as the plane crash in Rockaway (on Nov. 12, 2001, an American Airlines Airbus 300, Flight 587, crashed in the Rockaway section of Queens, NY, killing at least 285 people aboard the plane and on the ground), myself, George Fowler and Dennis Asher (peer counselors) were going into a firehouse to do a debriefing and then we stepped into the front door of the firehouse. When we saw the plane coming down in Rockaway, immediately I said I got to go, I'm from Rockaway, my firehouse. We were searching houses, jumping over fences and going from house to house that was on fire doing searches.

Then what happened was about an hour, there were so many bodies piled up and we were helping. The Counseling Unit responded in and when they organized triage in a school, we became counselors after, of course, we were just on the pile there moving bodies. So then we did a debriefing there, we actually sat down and talked to the guys and let them know what happened and how they felt and things like that.

I thought it was a very big test for the fire department to respond. When we were driving down Cross Bay Boulevard in Howard Beach, we were with about five or six other cars, all firemen, going down there. I realized at that point that we jumped over a big hurdle and we're going to be firemen no matter what, no matter what they throw at us, whether it's another terrorist attack or whether it was just another tragedy, and I felt that we passed this test.

After the plane crash, we spoke to several hundred firefighters in the Counseling Unit. They felt it was a sadder situation at the plane crash and more devastating than the World Trade Center because I guess of all the bodies. When I went back to these firehouses that responded to the plane crash over the next several months, we found that a lot of guys felt that that tragedy stuck with them more than the World Trade Center. At the World Trade Center we didn't see the visual effects of bodies all over the place. Of course, the World Trade Center lasted a lot longer, but it was the bodies from the plane crash that seemed to be what they had nightmares about down in Rockaway.

I felt that the fire department did pass a big test that day. The guys in Rockaway did an unbelievable job of putting that fire out because that could have been conflagration like we had 75 years before that down in Rockaway. But anyway, the guys mentioned that to us several times when we went back to the firehouses months later, how that impacted them. Several of those guys have gone into counseling.