For police and firefighters, just one more deadly risk

The sad news involving a Flagstaff police officer who took his own life, followed by our receipt of a white paper from an internationally recognized foundation that deals with social and disability-related issues, prompted Wrangler News to delve into how our Tempe emergency- services departments deal with the effects of untreated mental illness related to ongoing exposure to death and tragedy.

According to the Ruderman Family Foundation, which undertook a study on the topic, police officers and firefighters are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty.

To determine to what extent Tempe police and firefighters are aware of the inherent dangers involved with these issues, we asked Tempe Police Lt. Michael Hayes and Tempe Fire Asst. Chief Craig Fredricks to outline any preventive measures their agencies may have in place. Their responses follow:

Lt. Michael Hayes

We have a variety of wellness programs within the Tempe Police Department. All of these programs are designed to increase resilience both physically and mentally.

New officers begin acclimating within the law enforcement culture by joining our Advisor Program.

In this program new officers are assigned an advisor who can assist them with anything needed from the beginning until they are off probation. The relationship lasts well over a year, although can continue much longer informally.

Advisors go to a 10-hour training incorporating wellness, communication and goal-setting skills, financial and employee assistance, as well as going over Tempe PD’s five key initiatives.

We believe this program is vital in acclimating new employees to law enforcement and to the Tempe Police Department. The advisor is solely a mentor to the new employee, which we feel is important so that communication is not inhibited by the training and grading process. We also have a strong CISM, or Critical Incident Stress Management, program of about 40 officers/ sergeants.

CISM personnel are highly trained to assist those who have gone through a critical incident at work or are having issues outside of work. CISM provides a contact person to discuss any ongoing issues or to provide resources when the need is greater than they can assist with.

Even if resources are provided, the CISM person still continues contact to assist with the process. CISM also conducts structured briefings during extreme critical incidents to those that were directly involved during the incident.

If an officer is involved in a shooting, a (key multidisciplinary group) meets within two days of the incident to start talking about the welfare of the officer and to designate a point of contact. The purpose of these meetings is to ease the burden on the officer and to make sure the appropriate care and communication is happening.

Officers also have at their disposal the city of Tempe employee assistance program where officers can attend up to eight counseling sessions. We recently began a wellness class that teaches people how to regulate stress on their own.

We are exposing officers to resilience through breathing and movement. In this class officers and dispatchers will learn techniques to move and breathe more efficiently to reduce stress. This will be a tool they can use on their own to maintain wellness.

A new program we are beginning is the tracking of not only the amount of critical incidents that officers are involved in but other incidents as well, including accidents, complaints and use-of-force incidents, among other topics.

Supervisors will be provided an early update as to when officers have had a variety of work-related issues come up over the last six months. The supervisor will be able to look into this to see if any potential issues may arise. This will be extremely beneficial as we understand a variety of smaller cumulative issues can have extreme effects when a large critical incident occurs.

We also understand a large (number) of cumulative issues may affect some negatively without a large critical incident occurring. Hopefully, by obtaining this information early, we can assist employees to maintain wellness and thrive throughout their career.

Asst. Chief Craig Fredricks

PTSD and firefighter-, police- and military-suicides are occurring at an alarming rate. Tempe Fire Medical Rescue, through our labor/management process, has developed a comprehensive employee assistance program that focuses on the unique needs of our firefighters.

The program includes professional behavioral health provided by Public Safety Crisis Solutions and a peer support component provided by trained members of the department.

Both labor and management utilize member welfare people whose job it is to determine fit-for- duty status and assist in getting personalized help to members who need it.

We are developing a culture of wellness that includes early recognition of stressors and methods of coping.

This includes allowing time away from work to seek assistance if necessary. There is a notification system in place for when our firefighters respond to calls that we consider to be high stress in nature.

These high-stress incidents have an increased chance of resulting in long-term psychological effects and include such incidents as child drownings, suicides and major
or unusual violent incidents. All of our members have training in recognition of high-stress incidents. When one of these incidents occurs, notification is made up the chain of command and out through our dedicated member- welfare team.

That team, in turn, puts into motion a check on our firefighters that responded to the incident and begins assigning peer support members for future welfare checks. Our peer support members have training in early support of firefighters who need assistance and the ability to recognize a greater need and steer them toward more appropriate professional help when necessary.

Because stress is often cumulative and can come from many different sources, we are attempting to be comprehensive in our approach to stress management.

All of our members have training in recognition and the ability to access peer support and other resources for themselves or others via a web based program called Firestrong. This program was developed and made available through our firefighter labor group, Local 493.

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