TIP volunteers: Greater Portland's 'first responders in an emotional sense'

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PORTLAND — When accidents happen, the first responders are often police officers, paramedics or firefighters there to help the casualties.

But a growing number of second responders are volunteers, there to provide a different service to those left standing on the sidelines.

The Trauma Intervention Program, a program of Maine Behavioral Health, is an organization of volunteers whose purpose is to be there for people who have witnessed family members or friends in an accident, or have been a victim of some kind. TIP volunteers are called in by first responders or medical officials who see a person in emotional distress.

Leslie Skillin, the TIP crisis team manager, said volunteers try to bring a “calm to the storm” in very stressful and emotionally trying situations. She said TIP volunteers are available “24/7, 365 days a year.”

“As a volunteer I carry a pager, and when I’m on call I know at any given moment my pager could go off and I have to be on scene. And we do our best to be on scene within 20 minutes after we’re asked,” Skillin said.

Skillin said volunteers are the “first responders in an emotional sense.”

Volunteers stay with victims as long as they have to, she said, and won’t be pulled away like police officers or firefighters to deal with something else.

They provide emotional support, help arrange food or shelter, contact family and friends, and serve as liaisons between those in emotional distress and first responders and hospital staff.

Skillin said volunteers may make one follow-up call, but after that they remove themselves from the victim’s life.

“(They) are not there to replace the organic structure” of the victim’s life, she said.

TIP volunteers have to commit to three, 12-hour shifts and a three-hour meeting every month. Skillin said all volunteers live within half an hour of Maine Medical Center, and go through rigorous training.

First, Skillin sits down with anyone interested in volunteering to give them an overview of the difficulties of the job, so they understand what they’re getting into.

They then have to go through an extensive application process, including full background checks. If their application is accepted, they spend nearly 50 hours in class training before spending the next three months in field training with another volunteer. After that, Skillin said, they sit down again to discuss if the position is right for them.

“It’s not for everybody,” Skillins said. “It takes unique, selfless individuals who can put egos aside.”

She said the organization has 23 volunteers, including herself, and all but four are women. But Skillin said that isn’t usually an issue when people go out on a call.

“It’s a matter of someone showing up who cares,” she said.

One volunteer named Mary (TIP volunteers typically request that their full names not be disclosed for confidentiality purposes) said she is retired and wanted to do some kind of volunteer work. She completed her training six months ago.

“It may sound simple what we do, to be a calm in the storm … but I know I wouldn’t be able to do it without all the training,” she said.

Mary said the job can be difficult at times, she has always felt glad afterwards that she was able to help.

“I know I left those involved in a much better situation,” she said.

TIP is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, Skillin said. In its first year, the program responded to fewer than 70 calls and helped a few hundred people. Last year, TIP provided services to more than 1,300 people and answered nearly 300 calls.

TIP was founded 30 years ago in San Diego by psychologist Wayne Fortin, who saw those with emotional injuries were not being cared for immediately following a traumatic event, often because the first responders have to return to work or care for the victim.

Skillin said in 2004 several Portland groups, including fire and police departments, Maine Medical Center, and other health agencies saw the same need here, and began searching for a service, until they came across TIP.

“They came down to the fact that nobody was there for the families,” Skillin said.

Recently, TIP has been getting a little more recognition for its services.

On April 11, a TIP volunteer was recognized with the South Portland Community Service Award for continued service to the community and collaborative work with the South Portland Police Department.

Additionally, TIP volunteers were recognized with the Scarborough Community Service Award for their time and dedication assisting the first responders and providing emotional support.

TIP works with fire and police departments in Portland, South Portland, Scarborough, Westbrook, Falmouth, Cumberland, Cape Elizabeth, Windham and Gorham, as well as with the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office and Maine Medical Center.

There will be a TIP training session on April 30. For more information, contact Skillin by phone at 661-6478 or by email at LSCalder@mainebehavioralhealthcare.org.

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

Reporter covering the Portland Public School District as well as the town of Falmouth for The Forecaster. Can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net.