Firefighter’s widow campaigns for mental health services for Park City’s emergency responders
Wishes to use husband’s memorial to establish initiatives, provide training
March 3, 2017
Elaine Peterson's world came to a screeching halt on Feb. 6 when she learned her husband had committed suicide in Nevada, more than 400 miles away from the home they shared in Kamas with their 17-year-old daughter.
At around 11 p.m., Peterson was notified that her husband of 23 years, Kurt or "Buzz", a captain and 17-year veteran with the Park City Fire District, had taken his life.
In an interview with The Park Record, Peterson, through tears, said his death "came out of the blue." Peterson said she was completely unaware of the extent of his internal struggles, which she largely attributed to his career.
"He was so strong and took care of us and everyone around him, but never took the time to take care of himself," Peterson said. "It just breaks my heart that he was in such a dark place and we weren't able to pull him out of it."
Since her husband's death, Peterson has begun campaigning for more mental health services and education for Park City's emergency responders, especially those within the fire district. It is a cause that, she said, Kurt became very passionate about within the final six months of his life.
"It was a cause he really believed in. His number one priority was his crew and I think he felt like they needed help," Peterson said. "But I had no idea that he did, too. He was really trying to put something in place for Park City Fire."
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Jack Tidrow, president of the Professional Firefighters of Utah, said he had been working with Kurt, who also sat on the executive board, to establish a firefighter-specific, crisis-and-suicide hotline, along with a peer support team, within the Park City Fire District. The program has already been implemented in Salt Lake City and West Valley, among other districts.
"It is something he wanted to replicate and Buzz was at the forefront of that," Tidrow said. "I think he was a little frustrated that they weren't as responsive with how fast he wanted it to go, but no one wants to admit they have those issues on their department and forever no one wanted to talk about these things.
"We are tough guys and tough girls, but it is OK to talk about this now," he said.
Tidrow, who spent 10 years in the U.S. Army and has been in the fire service for 23, said he recognized the need for a program more than five years ago. He said several states, including Utah, have taken the lead in providing more mental health services and resources for firefighters.
"Things like this are like turning the Titanic and I will not be quick to judge Chief (Paul) Hewitt for not implementing it yet," he said. "It's new to him and his team does do a good job of taking care of compensation and benefits for Park City Fire, but Buzz was wanting to make it even better and more structured. I believe Hewitt is going to make something happen with this, especially now."
Park City Fire Chief Paul Hewitt, said he would "of course and absolutely" support a similar peer support program in Park City to go along the current counseling services that are available.
"But, we as fire chiefs have a lot to learn about this topic," Hewitt said. "I think it is a very sensitive time now. I have been in the fire service for 29 years and the stresses that the job brings have always been there, but we have all seen, across the board not just in firefighters, that suicide rates are going up. It's a growing concern."
After Kurt's death, a Go FundMe was set up to help fund and support firefighter mental health initiatives. As of Friday at around noon, nearly 100 people had donated $11,745. Peterson said she wants to use the funds to establish more programs and training for peer support within the Park City Fire District and other agencies.
"What he saw on those calls, it's not protocol to talk about. I know that he just put it in the back of his head," Peterson said. "At Park City Fire, there are a lot of horrific crashes on I-80, they have a lot of suicides and suicide attempts. Everything you see, it's often in your head, but you go in to your dorm room and close your door."
Peterson said she feels compelled to "continue this fight," not just for her husband, but all the "men and women he worked with." She said she "has to see this through for him."
"I know Kurt loved us, but he was in such a dark place," Peterson said. "That's what breaks my heart. I think about all those people in those dark places and I don't want them to be there. I don't know how many emergency personnel are able to pull themselves out."
To visit the family's Go FundMe page, go to https://www.gofundme.com/6hwn2a-kurt-peterson-memorial-fund.
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