Dial 211: First responders counsel first responders in crisis

In 2023, Florida has lost five firefighters, police officers or corrections officers to suicide

ORLANDO, Fla. – For first responders in mental health crisis, there is real help available from first responders.

A year and a half ago, the 211 mental health helpline was expanded to include counseling and resources for police officers and firefighters and other front-line workers.

Brannon Hicks, a retired first responder, is one of those front-line workers answering the helpline 24 hours a day.

Hicks said first responders face the daily reality that more of them die by suicide every year than in the line of duty, despite the danger and risk.

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Already this year, Florida has lost five firefighters, police officers or corrections officers – 13 last year, and the numbers have kept climbing every year since 2020, according to bluehelp.org.

“This is very serious to me, it’s very real,” Hicks said. “I lost myself, I was suicidal, moments away from making the decision myself.”

Hicks almost lost himself after losing his son to suicide in 2007. He is a retired bailiff, patrolman, and swat team leader and now a Peer Support Counselor at Jacksonville-based “Here Tomorrow.”

When other first responders like Hicks’ peers dial 211, he gets on the phone with them.

Hicks recently said, “2014 is when I retired and what led up to my retirement was degrading mental health.” “When I did finally to reach out to our Employee Assistance Program (EAP) it went very badly, it just wasn’t productive for me. And a lot of first responders have concerns about reaching out to the department program, concerns about confidentiality.”

Finally in 2021, Florida offered another option for any first responder anywhere in the state. First Lady Casey DeSantis announced $12 million for six behavioral health facilities across Florida to put peers at the other end of the 211 hotline for when first responders call in crisis.

Dr. Christine Cauffield, CEO of LSF Health Systems, also based in Jacksonville, said before the change to 211, first responders would get frustrated when they called for help.

“They were almost having to recount everything that happens on a daily basis to them, to the therapist, that was not familiar with what first responders do to that degree,” Cauffield said. “So that almost set up a barrier for them wanting to continue reaching out.”

LSF Health Systems, which covers Northeast Florida, including Volusia and Flagler counties, is one of the six facilities hired by the state, which hired Hicks and his nonprofit counseling center Here Tomorrow.

“Literally you just Google [us],” Hicks said. “You click on the link for Here Tomorrow, schedule an appointment. There’s no cost, we don’t ask about insurance, we don’t take it.”

Hicks received 144 hours of training from LSF to provide counseling, referrals, and assistance over the phone.

“There’s always a little bit of disbelief that there’s no cost for this, you don’t have to go through your agency,” Hicks said. “It’s completely confidential.”

Hicks said he and other first responder peer support specialists are saving lives.

“We do every day, every day,” Hicks said. “People call us in crisis in their worst possible moments. They’re sobbing in tears, they’re despondent. When they finally reach out to us often they’re in crisis and we talk them down from their crisis. We get them lined up with the help they need. And we have people tell us on a regular basis that they wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for us.”

If you call 211 for help and you’re a first responder, you must tell the dispatcher you are first responder so they can route you to Here Tomorrow or the peer support network that answers the phone in your area.

They promise if they can’t talk to you immediately, they’ll call you back within 24 hours.

Here Tomorrow only gets the 211 calls from first responders in Volusia and Flagler counties and Northeast Florida, but from wherever you call, you’ll get a peer support specialist.

If you’d to speak with Brannon Hick and Here Tomorrow specifically, you can call or text 904-372-9087.

If you’d like to learn more about DCF’s first responder resources, you can click here.

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About the Author:

Erik von Ancken anchors and reports for WKMG-TV News 6 (CBS) in Orlando and is a two-time Emmy award-winning journalist in the prestigious and coveted "On-Camera Talent" categories for both anchoring and reporting. Erik joined the News 6 News Team in 2003 days after the tragic loss of space shuttle Columbia.