Many of us who are retired spent years serving the community of Los Angeles, eventually walking into the sunset of retirement to enjoy the splendid pleasures of traveling, spending time with family and starting new projects. However, there are a few that continue working and/or seek another venture. Well, let me introduce John Potter. He was hired with the Los Angeles City Fire Department (LAFD) on August 10, 1980 and retired on October 21, 2016, working for over 36 years with the LAFD. John worked as a Firefighter for six years until his first promotion to Engineer in 1986, then in 1990 promoted to Inspector I. It was only three years later in 1993 that he was promoted to Fire Captain I and Fire Captain II in 1998. His final promotion was to Battalion Chief in 2007 where he was assigned to Battalion 10.
John received a Master’s degree in Psychology of Fire Officer Leadership, and is currently a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) and is trained to focus on the environmental factors when diagnosing and treating patients. He believes it is an important approach to take when treating first responders because their career lifestyle probably contributes to their emotional distress. He interned at a Psychiatric Hospital where John earned the required hours and experience which includes: clinical diagnosis, psychiatric medication effectiveness and interaction, and counseling through many different techniques. In 2020, John opened his private practice, Emotional Wellness for First Responders LLC., and still practices as a private clinical psychotherapist.
Currently, John works for the Clark County Fire Department and was hired in January of 2022. He serves as their Senior Employee Assistance Specialist where he provides training and awareness of effects of traumatic stress, awareness for emotional wellness, substance abuse prevention and consequences. Most importantly John provides clinical counseling one-on-one and assists members in finding outside clinicians whom he coordinates with to ensure proper treatment for their specific emotional needs. John’s responsibility is also to facilitate and coordinate the Peer Support Team (PST), which includes improved awareness, deployment models and the required initial and recurrent training.
When discussing behavioral wellness of first responders it is important to impart why emotional wellness is as important as physical wellness. Firefighters will work decades to finish their career in good physical health, and the fire service has provided the proper regulations for firefighter safety. However, emotional wellness awareness and education should also align with a firefighter finishing their career feeling mentally healthy too. John shares the perspective of someone who has worn the badge and has experienced and understands the need for emotional wellness education and awareness. His insight and 36 years experience as a Firefighter makes his knowledge irreplaceable and an asset when comforting and assisting first responders who seek counseling and advice.
The following questions and answers session with John Potter focuses on the importance of emotional wellness with Firefighters and first responders.
• Why is mental/emotional wellness and peer support important?
“As you already know from the research and the articles that you and I have conducted and put into writing, currently there is a staggering rate of increase in suicide, alcoholism, substance abuse and mental health issues occurring among first responders. Mental health and emotional wellness awareness recognition and treatment are among the goals of most first responder organizations at this time.”
• Why is mental/emotional wellness viewed as a weakness?
“I have recognized in past discussions the weakness is the bi-product from years of tradition of false perceptions about seeking emotional support and the stigma that arose from past eras when police and fire cultures were built upon ignoring, evading and suppressing views and that emotions tied to work related events was a flaw or a weakness. As you know, generations upon generations of this thought process produced environments to where members would rather suppress their emotional-based thoughts due to the fear of being labeled or thought of by their co-workers as being weak or broken.”
• What can the fire service do to change the negative perspective of mental/emotional wellness?
“I believe that the best starting point is to offer education and information that challenges the old ways of thinking and then continue with educational and leadership models within the chain of command to promote the importance of emotional wellness through formal discussion.”
• How do you change the negative culture in the fire service as it applies to mental wellness?
“It has to begin with leadership and the drive for education so that it can evolve into manageable increments of exposure to a more realistic mindset. Offering information and education through a formal process will eventually create the needed change from old views of stigma-based beliefs into a modern form of awareness, an awareness of the risks that is present for developing some form of emotional disorders due to unresolved and unaddressed cumulative exposure to traumatic events.”
• Why are suicides underreported in the fire service?
“I am citing Jeff Dill of Behavioral Health Alliance where he reports that suicides in Firefighters go unreported due to shame and stigma of admitting that one had emotional issues or even mental health disorders due to cumulative trauma. This causes friends, family members, and co-workers to maintain a state of denial and therefore not report it.”
• How does a therapist build trust from a Firefighter seeking help?
“That is a difficult situation for therapists who were not actually in the service as a first responder. It is unfair that most first responders are reluctant to participate in therapy unless the therapist has a background like I do. I always advocate to the members of Clark County Fire that their opinions and beliefs about therapists who were not experienced first responders is false and can be counterproductive because it can create a barrier which prevents them from reaching out for assistance. Part of my ongoing education to them is to emphasize that therapists are qualified to help them regardless of the background and that the therapists work very hard to understand the first responder culture, and, in fact, are probably better suited to assist them in some capacity because they do not possess bias that people like me have cultivated due to having been so immersed within the culture of that work force.”
• How can the fire service improve the awareness of mental/emotional wellness?
“One technique I have been using is to schedule the members of my peer support team to openly share their personal experiences with cumulative trauma, along with the support and therapy that they have pursued. This achieves several issues such as changing the views and opinions of mental health and stigmas associated with it, and overcoming older viewpoints that one is weak if he or she seeks therapy or assistance.”
• How can the fire service leadership improve the awareness of mental wellness within their organization?
“This is an important function of the chain of command to promote the ideas and concepts of emotional wellness and the reality of mental health issues inherent to our line of work. This needs to be presented as a foundation of effective leadership principles.”
• Would you like to see a suicide prevention education program developed with fire organizations? And, what type of education/training would you like to see offered to Firefighters?
“Unfortunately, this seems to be a topic that most will avoid as a stereotypical taboo. However, it is one of the more important subjects to be discussed and presented as an educational and awareness perspective with specific guidelines such as: how to learn to read signs of possible suicidal ideation, who to notify, steps to take to protect the member who might fit the category of a person experiencing that level of emotional distress, and most importantly, how to address the person openly. Jeff Dill has studied individual Firefighter suicides for the past ten years and he writes that most suicides of first responders occur with very little warning signs immediately prior to the act, but when explored in detail as Jeff has done, there are subtle signs that are noticed after the fact for example: over use of sick time, behavioral changes at work and at home, anhedonia or loss of interest in usually enjoyable activities, substance and/or alcohol abuse, personality shifts, and noticeable emotional instability.”
• How can a fire officer improve their understanding and awareness of mental/emotional wellness?
“The most effective way would be through formal departmental education and training. I present quarterly training to Captains and Battalion Chiefs on subjects that promote the chain of command to observe and engage. Subjects such as behavioral awareness of the members, substance and alcohol abuse warning sign and observation of concentration levels during routine and emergency duties. It is an observation skillset that can be cultivated through awareness and understanding of symptomology of traumatic stress. There are challenges that you and I discuss in depth such as the Captain or Battalion Chief comfort level in communication within the subject.”
• How can Firefighters help each other when faced with the stressors of the job?
“Peer support is crucial not only in a formal team concept but more so as a “buddy system” where we learn to notice subtle changes especially after a significant incident which may not be significant to some but yet it is to others. It is a form of looking out for each other but also respecting boundaries so it is a delicate skill to learn. Another important aspect that I encourage within the chain of command is to take the time to call the Captain and inquire how the organization can support them if there are possible triggering mechanisms hitting the members. Many concerns I hear from rank-and-file members is that the administration does not care because someone within the chain of command did not make an effort to inquire.”
• Are there therapeutic applications that can be helpful?
“Yes, there are many, for example: self-help in breathing techniques to reduce symptoms of anxiety, mindfulness for regaining perspective, cognitive comparison for reframing and restructuring our maladaptive thought processes when we lose sense of reality, coaching for learning new activities such as yoga, meditation and mindful activities, and sleep applications for regaining the ability to achieve rest which is a cornerstone for both physical and emotional healing.”
• What types of coping skills could a firefighter use to manage stressors of the job?
“The primary techniques that I advocate for are breathing techniques, exercise, and practicing mindfulness so that the individual can regain perspective of the present thereby learning to process his or her conflicts surrounding the incidents or situations that contribute to their emotional response to the traumatic stress. Other techniques I suggest are to reengage in or participate in meaningful mind clearing activities such as yoga, meditation, Tai-Chi, Japanese Tea Ceremony or routine activities which are enjoyable like listening to music or learning to play a musical instrument, craftwork and arts.”
• Would a stress education program be helpful for retirees, spouses and family members?
“Yes, absolutely as a matter of fact currently I am working at developing an outreach to Clark County Fire Department retirees as a system for social gathering where the members can relate to others through enjoyable events such as what LAFD has in the form of monthly breakfast clubs. My goal is to begin with that and then evolve it to a volunteer function to where retirees can re-enter the organization in a capacity as a mentor or coach and assist newer and younger members with aspects of the career. This will benefit retirees who are experiencing a sense of loss of purpose and it will benefit the department as crucial information can be conveyed through past experiences.”
• How do you view the future of emotional wellness in the fire service?
“I am feeling encouraged because in my current role here I have very strong support from both fire administration and the Union. From what I am observing in my position, the support of both important groups is contagious and the members in the fire stations seem to be getting that message and there appears to be an interest in emotional wellness based upon their participation in my educational presentations, and the fact that they are actually calling me and scheduling appointments to talk with me about their own emotional wellness.”
• In closing today’s interview, if there are three key points associated with emotional/mental wellness, what would you like to share?
1) Ensure that we all observe and address our own emotional wellness, as you know if we are not physically fit ourselves then it is difficult to save a life and the same is true for emotional self-care, think about the commercial airline instructions: “place the oxygen mask on you first.” We cannot assist others if we are unable to assist ourselves.
2) Be open and objective to shed off the past misinformation that has created the stigma of today in that seeking mental health or addressing emotional wellness is considered as a sign of weakness, or that one is broken if one does. It is important to break that tradition and although it is nowhere near what it was when we were young on the job, it is still present enough to influence members to the point of ignoring and enduring when they should be observing the signs and symptoms in themselves or at least objectively listening to their loved ones, friends and co-workers when a concern is brought to their attention.
3) Develop a “buddy system” and a departmental sponsored system to recognize and assist each other in recognizing and addressing potential queues and signs that there is a presence of traumatic stressors. Chain of command is crucial in this area and it must be orchestrated and delivered within foundations of leadership.
John Potter provides the voice from the badge and his continued efforts to help first responders to better manage their emotional wellness will make a positive contribution to their lives.
Train and educate yourself to better understand mental wellness, as if your life depends on it.