EMS Peer Support Program

Posted September 28 2017 10:57am

September 2017 - On any given week, more than 500,000 Canadians will not go to work because of mental illness. A staggering $1 billion each year is lost to the Canadian economy because of mental illness (Source: Mental Health Commission).

First responders are exposed to a wide range of tragedies, horrors, and risks to their personal safety in their daily efforts to protect and serve our communities. Those exposures have the potential to take a toll on first responders’ mental health and culminate in Operational Stress Injuries (OSI).  This refers to the broad range of potential mental health impact, including but not limited to Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression, burnout, compassion fatigue, and even suicide.   

Sault Area Hospital’s (SAH) Central Ambulance Communication Centre (CACC) is the dispatch service for all ambulance services in the district of Algoma and consists of 27 staff members. They also provide fire call taking and dispatching for most of the fire departments in the Algoma District.

In Sault Ste. Marie, the average call-taker can take 60-80 calls in a shift, working on a 4 day/12-hour shift schedule. In 2016, the CACC handled 24,644 calls for service, or an average of 2,054 calls per month. So far in 2017, they have handled 11,417 calls or an average of 2,283 per month. “In this field of work, it is no surprise that we see a great deal of burnout and compassion fatigue with our staff,” says Terri McMillan, Manager CACC.

The role of the CACC is to receive all 911, emergency and non-emergency requests for ambulance and fire services, determine the required level of response, and provide seamless ambulance dispatching services using the resources provided by the ambulance service operators. They also provide timely and accurate pre-arrival instructions to callers, as well as support and information to ambulance service providers and other emergency health services system stakeholders. The CACC covers the entire Algoma District, an area of over 70,000 square kilometres.

To combat Operational Stress Injuries, SAH and the City of Sault Ste. Marie have partnered to provide a unique Peer Support Program for Emergency First Responders. “We believe this is the first partnership in Canada to include all first responders including a CACC, Fire, Police, and EMS,” explains McMillan. “To our knowledge, this is the first frontline-driven, municipally supported Peer Support Program that involves a coordinated partnership between all four emergency services.” 

First responders from each emergency service went through the team selection and training together, demonstrating the group’s ability to unify and work together seamlessly, partner collaboratively, or work independently within their respective services. This program has truly been a collaborative effort between the frontline first responders, labour groups, associations, municipality, and the province. 

“Two years ago, we began looking at employee support programs designed to help our staff cope with the constant pressures associated with working in this stressful field,” she says. “We researched potential programs, spoke to other EMS providers across the province and participated in several educational courses to help deliver programs to address trauma in the workplace,” explains McMillan. As a result, CACC staff received mental health first aid training. “We worked closely with our Crisis Services Department to learn how to deal with callers who are in crisis,” says McMillan. “We also benefited from a psychology session that provided valuable coping tips.”

After further research, the CACC found that the City of Sault Ste. Marie was developing a peer support program for its first responders and the centre became a participant in the program. “It didn’t take much convincing by CACC management to include their group in our Emergency First Responder Peer Support Program,” says Aldo Iacoe, Health and Safety Coordinator, City Of Sault Ste. Marie. “Ambulance Communications Officers are the first contact when someone calls 911. They must calmly listen to what are usually very distraught situations, get vital information from the caller and then dispatch the information to our First Responders in order to help the caller, often without knowing the outcome of their actions.”

Dr. Lori Gray, a licensed clinical, forensic and rehabilitation psychologist with expertise in working with first responders, facilitated the development, team selection, training, and ongoing support of the Peer Support Program. “We’re very fortunate to have someone of Dr. Gray’s stature oversee all aspects of this very important program. The feedback from our First Responder Peer Group has been very positive in regards to her training program and her level of expertise and professional demeanor,” states Iacoe.

The program was launched on May 1st of this year.  McMillan says that first responders from each service nominated their peers whom they felt would best provide the peer support services.  These nominees then participated in extensive psychological testing and interviews and ultimately, from those results, the team members were chosen by Dr. Gray. 

Team members attended 10 training days, with the continued oversight of Dr. Gray and ongoing educational development.  The Peer Support Program proudly includes 50 members, providing services to the first responders of our community. “We have also participated in two Compassion Fatigue workshops and will be sending staff to a ‘train the trainer’ session in September on the same topic,” says McMillan.

Staff can self-refer or co-workers/colleagues can refer anyone to the Peer Support Program. “If I notice someone is struggling, I can call anyone on the team and ask them to reach out because that staff member recently had a difficult call,” says McMillan. In addition, a list of community resources has been developed and CACC plans to work collaboratively with the existing Employee and Family Assistance Program in place at SAH.

So why is a Peer Support Program important? According to McMillan, emergency first responders are expected to perform their jobs flawlessly each and every day and ultimately, a healthy EMS worker will provide the best possible service to those people who need it the most. “This is a profession where our team is putting everyone else first. People do not call us because they are having a good day.”


McMillan says that it’s important to take care of staff so that they perform their very best for 911 callers. “A robust Peer Support Program will go a long way to preventing operational stress injuries like burnout, compassion fatigue or PTSD and ensure that our team is performing at its best at all times.”

SAH salutes everyone at CACC and our partners at the City of Sault Ste. Marie for implementing this unique program for the benefit of first responders and all those they serve!

Tips for Calling 911

  • Know your location. Many people assume that ambulance dispatch always knows where the call is coming from but this is not always the case. The ambulance dispatch communications officer must confirm where you are (city, street, cross streets, apartment number, etc.) regardless of whether the call is coming from a cell phone or land line.  
  • If you dial 911 by accident, do no hang up.  Just let them know it was a mistake.
  • Do not program 911 into your phone as a speed dial. Dial 911 or use the emergency call feature on your phone instead. Up to 30% of 911 calls are made as a result of accidental pocket dials and each call must be treated as authentic. 
  • Do not let kids play with old cell phones equipped with batteries. All cell phones have to allow 911 calls, so kids can dial 911 with a phone that has no calling plan.


Rose Calibani is the Public Affairs Officer at Sault Area Hospital. We welcome comments and suggestions for future column topics. Please call Public Affairs at (705) 759-3671.