How to Start a First Responder Wellness Program
By Jeremy Wade, Fearless Resilience LLC
Starting a wellness program has now become essential for every first responder agency for three reasons. First, the mental and physical health of our first responders nationwide has finally begun to receive the attention it deserves. It has recently been recognized by politicians, mental health professionals, and agency leaders of our police, fire, EMS, corrections, and dispatchers. The alarming statistics around suicide, PTSD, divorce, and cardiovascular disease, to name a few, have finally reached levels that cannot be ignored. Secondly, a good wellness program can support our heroic first responders and give them the needed resources to overcome these heartbreaking statistics and have meaningful careers. Lastly, this is one of the keys to solving the recruiting and retention challenges many agencies face today. Unfortunately, many agencies have no idea where to start, or what components would make up an effective wellness program. This is understandable however, since first responder wellness programs will look very different than those in the corporate world, or even in the military.
Reactive and Proactive Support
An effective wellness program should have both reactive and proactive support elements. While reactive support through peer support teams, chaplains, EAP, crisis lines, and other culturally competent resources are necessary, it is not enough, and does not embody a complete wellness program. These reactive support programs are essential though, because of the frequent critical incidents and traumas that first responders are exposed to. Unfortunately, we find in most agencies these programs are not fully developed or very effective.
Additionally, mental and physical health statistics will never improve without turning the corner to offer ongoing proactive support and training as well. The proactive support programs should have a broad approach to meet the diversity in agencies, and equip first responders for what they will face throughout their careers. The barometer for a good wellness program should be centered around the question “Does the rank and file feel supported and valued through the program?” In most cases, current wellness models are being developed and directed by clinical professionals or first responder leaders, who have good intentions but are seen as out of touch and not understanding of the culture. Despite their efforts many programs end up falling flat.
Retired Brigadier General Rhonda Cornum used an analogy to describe the philosophy behind the US Army resilience and wellness program stating, “We would not send our soldiers out to run a marathon without training them first, and then just treating them when they broke down.” She said, “No, our goal would be to properly train and equip them beforehand, and while some will still break down, many fewer.” She was highlighting the need to move away from primarily reactive support, and begin to additionally offer far more proactive support.
I have learned through my agency that one of the most important first steps to building up a proactive wellness program is a department-wide resilience and wellness training class. This is one of the best ways to start the conversation, address the cultural stigmas, equip first responders for their unique professional challenges, and meet them where they currently are in their careers. When done right, with a broad overview approach, the training can really move both the reactive and proactive support efforts forward. This type of class can also highlight peer support teams and other resources, and can cast a vision for how the agency’s wellness program desires to grow in the future.
I believe the introductory training on resilience and wellness topics at academies is limited, and not enough to sustain first responders throughout their careers. I have also spoken with many veteran first responders who stated they have never had training on these topics in their entire career, and only wished they had sooner. Others have commented that a class like this will save lives, and vastly improve the rest. This should be ongoing, annual training to supplement other proactive programs. I have also learned from experience that a well-developed curriculum should be created and instructed by a knowledgeable first responder, not necessarily a mental health professional. This type of training is more effective in connecting with peers when presented by another first responder, because of their shared experiences and trust. The reality however, is that this is a difficult task to achieve, and most first responders lack the training and experience in this area to develop a well-rounded resilience and wellness class themselves.
Rank and File Led, but Supported and Endorsed by Leadership
A wellness program that is created and led by trusted and respected boots on the ground will gain credibility and be utilized more often. First responders are very skeptical of anyone that has not walked in their shoes, or is perceived as out of touch with their day to day reality. These efforts will only be possible through the full support of the administration. If there is no support to start programs now, be patient, take small steps forward when possible, and look for allies in the agency that understand the importance of this program. Peer support teams are a great starting point, and in some agencies these teams have expanded into wellness units who develop proactive support programs as well.
Words of Caution
Do not assume that one proactive program or option will interest everyone in the agency, or that it will be the right fit for all of them. Build up many resources and options so that everyone feels supported. If the agency does not already have an accepting culture of wellness, more time may need to be spent laying the foundation, or starting over with a good resilience and wellness overview class. Some first responders have been burned by poorly run peer support teams, mental health professionals, or other programs who were supposed to help them but did not. Other agencies have a general culture resistant to wellness because they believe it is not needed. An analogy of a resistant wellness culture could be illustrated as follows… A doctor is unable to convince his seemingly healthy patient that he is sick. This patient leaves in denial, immediately disregards the advice, and changes nothing. In contrast, a second seemingly healthy person is told he is sick, the doctor takes the time to explain the severity of the situation, and is able to connect on his level and offer hope. This second patient leaves grasping the reality, supported in the crisis and confident in the solutions, and takes ownership for his part in achieving a healthy life. My hope is that the first responder culture can be like the second patient and embrace resilience and wellness through trust in the source and hope in the change. I have seen too many of my heroic brothers and sisters broken or dying as a result of their service. These men and women are owed wellness programs that can turn the tide, and support and value them for who they are and what they have done for their communities. There is hope.
Proactive Wellness Program Options
Here are some proactive wellness program options to be considered for an agency of any size.
- Survey to assess current state of the agency
- Annual resilience and wellness training (mental, physical, spiritual, social)
- Hire consultant to assess agency and recommend a specific wellness plan
- Develop internal agency values (We all have mission statements, and external values for how we will serve our communities. Internal values would address how we lead, develop, and support each other.)
- Annual mental health visit (mandatory for all, or optional and incentivized – this will reduce stigma and remove barriers)
- Culturally competent psychologist consultant (to guide the rank and file led efforts)
- Quarterly wellness newsletters (developed by boots on the ground, not HR)
- Family support programs (they have to be included and supported too)
- Expert resources and partnerships available for entire agency (fitness, nutrition, sleep, financial, stress management, professional development)
- On-duty time for workouts or other proactive health programs
- Peer fitness experts and advisors (for individual fitness plans, or to advise programs)
- Yoga (i.e. Yoga for First Responders)
- Mindfulness (i.e. The Mindful Badge)
- Agency therapy dog
- Wellness App (Cordico – wellness app specifically designed for every first responder in your agency, and their families. This is one of the few programs I would recommend that offers both reactive and proactive support resources and can enhance any existing wellness efforts you have already started. In my opinion, this app replaces the traditional, ineffective EAP services for first responder agencies that are not designed for us, and removes some of the barriers with easy 24/7 access, that will undoubtedly improve and save lives.)
About Jeremy Wade
Jeremy Wade is the founder of Fearless Resilience LLC, and a full-time Peer Support Coordinator as an officer of the Seattle Police Department. He has served in Seattle over 10 years with a long list of accomplishments, including; Medal of Valor, Officer of the Year (precinct & department-wide), Officer of the Month (Washington’s Most Wanted on Q13 FOX), and the City of Seattle Community Outreach Leadership Award. In addition to leading the successful peer support team for the last 3 years, he was tasked with developing and instructing the agency’s first resilience training for the entire department in 2018. He instructed all 70 of the nearly full day classes, which changed many lives throughout the department, and vastly improved the wellness culture. This effort is continuing on in Seattle through annual resilience and wellness training, and the development of other wellness programs.
Jeremy started Fearless Resilience LLC as a result of the need for a first responder subject matter expert in resilience and wellness training, peer support team training, and wellness program consultation. He has already introduced resilience training to over 50 police and fire departments in Washington and Oregon, and advised many peer support teams, and new wellness programs around the country. He is building a team of expert first responders to adequately serve any agency around the country that is ready to improve their wellness culture, and properly support them throughout their careers. Contact Fearless Resilience LLC for a department-wide resilience training program, peer support team training, or wellness program consultation. (www.fearlessresilience.com)