Every day, our department responds to over 1400 emergency calls. As you know, these responses cover a myriad of categories. Our first responders are not immune to the physical, psychological, and physiological effects that these responses can cause. We are exposed to higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety issues related to the tragic incidents we respond to daily. We are no strangers to the long-term effect that our profession can have on us over the course of our careers. We are all too familiar with the term, Compartmentalizing. We may think we do it well but over time, it has been shown to have devastating consequences.
We have felt the emptiness and sadness of losing one of our own to suicide. We often ask ourselves, “ Why didn’t I recognize the signs?” How is it possible that we work together for twenty-four hours, forty-eight, seventy-two, ninety-six, etc., and not have a clue what is going on deep down inside our colleagues/partners?
Our Behavioral Health Program, PEER Support, department psychologists, and one another are not always enough to get us through tough times. In my thirty-five years in this department, I have been involved in our PEER Support Program. I have watched it grow into a pillar that supports the very foundation of mental health and the Fire Chief’s “Everyone Goes Home” Firefighter Safety Program.
As an added layer to our already robust and successful Behavioral Health Program, Chief Terrazas agreed to an LAFD Canine Therapy Program that launched in December of 2020. This is a one-year pilot program whose purpose is to help alleviate psychological and emotional trauma impacting our firefighters. Currently, the LAFD Canine Therapy Program has one canine/handler team to provide emotional support to all 3,500 members of our Department. This pilot program would not be possible without the collaborative efforts of UFLAC and our Fire Chief.
Our canine therapy dog has been trained to recognize the effects of PTSD, anxiety, depression, and more. Witnessing our dog “Teddy” in action is heartwarming. He gently nudges the member whose hands are placed over their face and slowly raises up until his paws are atop the shoulders of that member. The connection that is felt truly can melt the heart. His gentle disposition and extensive training make him a tremendous asset to our already successful program. Meet Teddy, the LAFD’s First Therapy Dog who was donated by the Patriotic Service Dog Foundation (PSDF), (https://www.patrioticservicedogfoundation.org/). Each therapy dog that is paired with an LAFD handler (FF Susan Jensen/Back up Handler, Ret. FF/PM Leah Fleischmann) undergoes specialized training together. This pairing is something that the PSDF determines based on both the canine and the handler’s personalities. As we continue through our pilot program, its success will determine future therapy dogs and handler positions.