UCFD1 Prioritizes Mental Health Through Awareness Program

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Community Counseling Solutions employee Chris Humphreys teaches resiliency training at the Umatilla County Fire District No. 1 Station 23, 78760 Westland Road, in Hermiston. The training is part of the UCFD1’s mental health awareness program. (Nickolas Oatley/contributed photo)

To improve the health and wellbeing of its firefighters and paramedics mentally and physically, the Umatilla County Fire District No. 1 has developed a mental health awareness program.

UCFD1 Chief Scott Stanton said there are many components to the program, including instituting preventative measures and reducing exposure to carcinogens to reduce cancer risks as well as individual and family counseling sessions to support healthy minds and home lives.

“It started many years ago with simple stuff, like we brought in some nutritionists from Good Shepherd, paid for gym memberships at Club 24 for all members of the department and then we joined Hermiston PD (police department) and the chaplaincy program that they started,” he said.

Stanton added firefighters are prone to getting cancer, so the fire district implemented preventative measures such as adding decon buckets to engines, having handy wipes available to wipe areas of the body that are prone to attract carcinogens and trying to get everyone showered within an hour back from a call.

“We started that kind of stuff a little bit at a time over the decade, but I think one of the few big things we did that really sticks out to me is since the pandemic,” Stanton said. “PTSD is a big deal in the fire service and I think firefighters are almost three times as more prone to get cancer than the regular public. We also have higher levels of suicide and depression because of the kind of stuff we have to see daily. We see the bad stuff every day when we are at work.”

Seeing these issues, Stanton signed a contract with Community Counseling Solutions last winter.

“The first thing they helped us with before we signed the contract was Chris Humphreys, who is one of their lead folks, a law enforcement liaison, he started teaching a class on building resilience to every new person who came through the fire district,” said Stanton.

Every intern, volunteer, new hire and current staff member were then required to take the class, Stanton said. “That class just helps us figure out ‘how do we build resilience within ourselves to cope with what we have to do, see and smell during our work?’”

Stanton added the contract also provided the opportunity to have a legitimate in-house counselor available and that staff members now have several outlets to speak with someone about any problem.

“We have the EAP (employee assistance program) through special districts where people can talk to a chaplain or they can call the 1-800 number to the EAP, and now they finally have these clinicians they can talk on the phone with who understand what public safety folks do,” he said.

A decade ago, Stanton said, people in the fire service would attempt to talk to a clinical professional about the emotional hardships that come with the job but were speaking to someone who didn’t fully understand them.

“So what happened was special districts went out and they got some folks who knew what they were doing,” he said. “With Chris Humphreys being a retired police officer and sheriff, he gets it. He has the training, he has the master’s degree. He understands what we do and see so having that was probably the number one biggest thing that I think that the contract does.”

Stanton said knows the program is working because the counseling that Humphreys has provided is being used to the extent that he’s had to dedicate more time for the sessions.

“I think that’s a good thing. You know it doesn’t mean any of us are broken,” he said. “We are supposed to be the tough ones and not let things bother us, but when you chronically see things shift after shift, eventually it’s just that last straw that breaks the camel’s back and we don’t want to get to that point.”

Stanton added counseling sessions are also available for staff family members. He said this resource is to help family members better understand what staff members go through and to work out issues before they grow.

“The big picture for me is that someday these folks’ careers are going to end, and I want them to have a really healthy and awesome retirement life after their fire service. There is life after the fire service. They’ll have families to be with. That is a big deal for us, for them to have a healthy career and life after their career,” said Stanton.

Understanding that people in the fire service have a higher divorce rate than the average person, Stanton said many efforts were made for the program to prevent divorce and promote a better home life.

In addition to family counseling the fire district implemented a four-shift schedule that reduces staff’s work week from 56 hours to around 48 hours. Stanton said in doing this staff get less exposure to carcinogens and can have a better work-life balance.

Lastly, he said Community Counseling Solutions is helping the fire district build a bigger support system within its organization. Staff members are encouraged to talk to shift partners, lieutenants or one a chief when they are having problems.

“The most important resource we have is our people. If we don’t have good trained, healthy responders then they can’t do their job to keep our community safe and serve them,” said Stanton. “We all need some help at times.”

The program, he said, offers help in many forms. Other than counseling, the program works with the Oregon Fire Chief Association and Department of Public Safety Standard and Training program to bring staff members classes on work-life balance and struggle well, a prevention-focused program based on posttraumatic growth science.

“A lot of things come together to try and help make our organization healthier in all three aspects physical, mental and emotional, so they can do their job better,” said Stanton. “It’s not just about your physical fitness anymore. It’s about your emotional and mental fitness, too. We are continuing to always strive to do better and find more ways to help our people.”

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