First responders have to see things most people don’t. They dig for bones in ashes, and see devastating natural disasters, accidents, violence and deaths, local first responders say.
Those stresses can affect the body much like mercury poisoning, said Napa Fire Capt. Ty Becerra, who leads the department’s peer counseling program. Traumas accumulate in first responders, and one day, they might get triggered and find themselves unable to function, he said.
“We’re exposed to things that the layperson doesn’t normally see, and it doesn’t make us tougher, it doesn’t make us stronger,” Becerra said. “When we see some things, they affect us.”
Police officers and firefighters are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty, according to a study from the Ruderman Family Foundation. Post-traumatic stress disorder rates among police and fire personnel are as much as five times higher than civilian PTSD rates, researchers found.
Police witness 188 critical incidents during their careers, on average, and just three to five percent of the 18,000 law enforcement agencies in America have suicide prevention programs, according to the study. Researchers pointed to Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance statistics that estimate that six in 10 firefighter suicides are not reported.
Local fire and law enforcement officials say first responders had long lived in a professional culture of silence, where discussing personal traumas was perceived as weakness.
There’s been a significant cultural and generational change, where it’s easier to open up about difficult topics, said Napa firefighter-paramedic Ray Fields, who also leads Napa Fire’s program. Peer support programs help agencies be proactive, not reactive, he said.
“Our culture has been a culture of … machismo,” Becerra said. “But then we started having this rash of suicides.”
The loss of life couldn’t be ignored.
“It’s come to a head where it’s not taboo to speak about (mental health) anymore,” said Napa Police Lt. Gary Pitkin.
Local agencies organize
Today, all city and county fire and law enforcement personnel have peer support programs.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, which contracts with Napa County, has offered peer support services to its personnel since 2014. The Napa County Sheriff’s Office and Napa Police Department have had peer support programs for two years. The Napa Fire Department’s program has been in place since November 2018.
Success in officers’ personal and professional lives helps them provide a better service to the public, said Napa County Sheriff’s Sgt. John Hallman, who supervises the peer support program.
Peer support staff in other agencies may cooperate, he said. Volunteers in other agencies may notice different things or have unique life experiences that resonate with a particular situation, Hallman said.
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Taking away the stigma
The peer aspect of support programs is key, officials say. First responders are more likely to listen to and respect a seasoned professional in their field, Hallman said.
Other first responders know what it’s like to enter a burning building or confront a violent situation, knowing they might not see their families again, he said. Training helps first responders deal with that stress in a healthy way.
“On top of the death, the darkness … you have a threat to your own life,” Hallman said. “And although we sign up for it, the reality is, it still has an effect on human beings.”
Peer support isn’t just about navigating emotional challenges on the job, he said. Wellness includes being conscious of one’s diet and budget, too.
Peer support volunteers may talk to their colleagues about any challenges in their professional or personal lives. Becerra noted that divorce is more common among first responders and can make people more susceptible to behavioral health issues.
Hallman said peer support programs seek to eliminate two lies: that the person seeking help is alone in their struggles and their situation will never change.
Advances in law enforcement technologies and equipment mean nothing if staff aren’t taken care of, said Lt. Pitkin of Napa Police. Peer support programs aim to take the stigma away from talking about wellness and show that it takes strength to confront personal issues.
The Napa County Community Corrections partnership recently greenlighted both Napa Police Department and Napa County Sheriff’s Office to enter into $20,000 contracts for a yearlong pilot program with Cordico, the developer of a first responder mobile app. The app connects personnel with counseling services and resources on topics such as depression, grief and physical fitness.
The Napa Fire Department currently offers new employees a pamphlet with information on resources, but is considering contracting with Firestrong, a website that offers services similar to the Cordico app. Becerra said it’s currently unclear when staff will be able to access Firestrong or how much the partnership will cost, but the department hopes to enter into a partnership within the next year.
Napa Police Officer Sean Ulitin has spent 20 years with the department and comes from a family of first responders — his dad worked for the Napa Police Department and his brother works for the Napa Fire Department. He’s spent nearly a decade on the crisis negotiation team and said he decided to volunteer for the peer support program out of a desire to help his colleagues.
Ulitin said he didn’t know about all of the resources available to staff when he was a newer officer. When the Napa Police Department began offering an introductory training on peer support resources, he said he was surprised to see the program was so well-received. Such resources can give officers tools to draw on later in their careers, Ulitin said.
Local first responders say that being able to help their community makes the difficult parts of the job worth it.
It’s a calling, said Pitkin. It’s about growing up with a desire to help others.
“Whether we’re successful, or victorious, or not, at least we know at the end of our career, we’ve given every freakin’ thing we have to try to make our community a better place,” he said. “And that is priceless.”