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After the Cambridge Police and Fire departments responded to a call on April 16 where a 3-year-old boy fell into a pond and died on April 21 of complications from the drowning, it became apparent to Cambridge Fire Chief Todd Tomczik that the city’s first responders could use some behavioral health support services.
“After that call, it really came to me that we need more help in the aspect of dealing with mental tragedies like this that we deal with a lot,” Tomczik said. “I’ve been doing this 31 years and you think you’ve got it all figured out, and you get an incident like this that puts a whole new spin on things.
“That call, that day, affected no less than five firefighters doing CPR. At least five police officers, from our police force, doing CPR. Three of our firefighters doing CPR in the ER for another hour and a half after we left the scene. Very difficult call, and that’s when it came to me as a chief I need to make sure that my 30 firefighters can handle the mental stress of the job that we do. And I’m a firefighter. I’m no way near the level that Dr. (Margaret) Gavian is and I need help. Helping to make sure our firefighters have resources available. They’re more than welcome to talk to the chief, the deputy chief, about anything. ... Not everybody wants to talk to their chief, or their captains. Sometimes it gets bottled up inside. And for me, it’s a cumulative thing that happens over the years. I really believe we need more help dealing with some of this,” Tomczik added.
Tomczik explained he, along with Cambridge Police Chief Todd Schuster, and few other first responders, met with Dr. Margaret Gavian, founder and director of the Par 360 program. Tomczik explained Par 360 is a yearly subscription program that can provide mental health expertise through emergency response, consultation and training to keep firefighters and police officers mentally healthy, conflict free and successful on the job.
The purpose of Par 360 is to protect firefighter and police officer resilience and reduce the risk of suicide by relieving chiefs from the burden of dealing with mental health issues.
Following a presentation by Gavian, the Cambridge City Council approved a contract for Par 360 to provide health and wellness services to the Fire and Police departments during its June 21 meeting. The cost to participate in Par 360 is $170 per year per police or firefighter, which will be paid through the two departments’ operating budgets. A portion of the firefighter costs could be reimbursed through a grant through the Minnesota Board of Firefighter Training and Education.
Gavian explained as part of Par 360, the Police and Fire departments will receive:
• Online resilience training for all department members.
• Delivery of a “Leadership to Support Firefighter/Police Officer Mental Health” workshop for department leadership.
• Access to a confidential Facebook page to answer questions, get additional training and learn from others.
• Chief consultation with direct line to mental health experts.
• Chief monthly training conference calls with Gavian to discuss current fire service and law enforcement issues.
• List of vetted providers with expertise in first responders.
• Resources for how to recognize the warning signs in themselves and others.
• Discounted rate for additional services per request (such as mental health checkups).
“I really want to thank your chiefs for having me here, because what they’re talking about and what their concerns are is something that is a nationwide problem, so there’s just nothing unique,” Gavian said. “You have some very proactive, thoughtful chiefs that are really looking out for the community and for their people.”
“First responders — so that’s police, fire, EMS — have extremely high suicide rates that far surpass line-of-duty death, and that’s something that we often get surprised by, because we think line-of-duty death is sort of the natural risk of the job, but we don’t often think about the emotional hazards that this group faces, and they’re at extremely higher rates, depending on the research you look at, at higher rates of suicide,” Gavian said. “At least 25% of police officers are currently struggling with mental health issues; 25% of police officers, the research has shown, are thinking about ending their own lives. And this one, half of all firefighters — this is a recent research coming out from the International Association of Firefighting, this is a lot of hard core research coming out — that half of all firefighters think about ending their own lives. That to me, I talk about this topic a lot, and it still, every time I have to talk about this statistic, gets me.”
Gavian explained besides the high suicide rates, firefighters also have extremely high rates of substance use disorders, anxiety, depression, burnout and post-traumatic stress.
“Mental health issues are physical injuries, just like if they hurt themselves on the job,” Gavian said. “There are a lot of mental health issues going on in the first responder community.
“What the research is showing is that 90% of them see seeking help as a sign of weakness. These are the toughest of the tough human beings that are out there. First responders are the most generous people; they will literally give you the shirt off their back to help strangers. Except what happens, is that because they’re the rocks of our community, they are often the last ones to ask for any help. And what ends up happening, is that people are suffering in silence and don’t put their hand up.”