One Year After The Camp Fire, Grant Funds Wellness Services For First Responders

This is the transcript of the North State Public Radio‘s Sarah Bohannon interview with Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea.  Sheriff Honea candidly discusses the challenges that repeated trauma has on first responders and the recent one million dollar grant to help first responders in the aftermath of the Camp Fire.  The audio interview can be found here.

Editor’s note:  The wellness app mentioned in this interview was developed in partnership with the Butte County Sheriff’s Office and Cordico.


Beth Ruyak: From Capital Public Radio in Sacramento, this is Insight. I’m Beth Ruyak. One year ago this Friday, the Camp Fire started on Camp Creek Road in Butte County. It became, as I’m sure you know, the most destructive fire in California history, nearly destroying the town of Paradise and much of the surrounding area. Dozens of people were killed, thousands of homes and buildings were burned to the ground, but there are remarkable stories of survival and of starting over too. There’s a truly gripping composite of some of all of this in the first 24 hours of the fire. It’s been captured in a new Netflix film. It’s titled Fire in Paradise. We’ve posted the trailer on our website. For some people, this is going to be too intense but if you are interested, you can find this amazing documentary on Netflix. The Butte County Sheriff meanwhile recently announced a one million dollar grant to help first responders in the aftermath of that fire. Sheriff Kory Honea talked to a Sarah Bohannon, who is news director at North State Public Radio in Chico, about the grant, and he ended up being truly candid about his own challenges with trauma. He says it started even before the Camp Fire, he talks about how he’s tried to stay grounded. So we’re going to share part of that conversation with you. It begins as he answers Sarah’s questions about the Butte County First Responders’ Trauma Response Program, and the purpose of the funding.

Sheriff Honea: Ultimately, it is a program designed to address the mental and physical wellbeing of our first responders. This job is stressful. First responders see some really horrific things on a day to day basis. Just the general day to day stuff that we deal with, you know, you respond to situations where people are in crisis where they’re having the worst day of their life. You go to situations where you have to deal with death. You go to situations where there are, you know, very difficult decisions to make that impact people’s lives, and that all has a cumulative effect on the emotional wellbeing of first responders. Layer on top of that critical incidents. And here in Butte County, this past year, we had the Camp Fire, and every single member of this community was impacted by that. I don’t think anybody went unscathed. Certainly some people were impacted far more than others, but nonetheless, it impacted everybody. But it also impacted all of the first responders who went there. For, you know, the firefighters and EMS and law enforcement, it was a prolonged response. It was months and months of dealing with this incredible tragedy. I’ve already started to see where that emotional traumas, you know, starting to manifest itself and starting to become apparent. So one of the things that I wanted to do there in the course this year is really start addressing that. As tragic as the Camp Fire was with regard to visiting this emotional trauma, not only in our community, but upon our first responders, it also provides us with an opportunity.

The opportunity is this: when everybody has a collective experience, when everybody is suffering to one degree or another from the impacts of this, then nobody’s on an island by themselves, right? It gives us an opportunity to acknowledge that, hey, there’s a problem. We should be more proactive in our approach to dealing with not only trauma visited upon us by the Camp Fire, but also the cumulative day to day trauma that impacts first responders. So I was looking for ways to develop programs that would help us do that. I reached out to the North Valley Community Foundation, I was amazed at how quickly they jumped on the idea and saw the value in it. It was really gratifying and humbling and so thankful. So we worked and I worked a great deal with David Little who’s part of the executive board crafting the idea, and then ultimately, we were awarded the funding, and they gave us a million dollars to put together the Butte County first responder trauma response program.

Sarah Bohannon : So what will the funding provide specifically? What sorts of programs will be happening because of this grant?

Sheriff Honea: We have developed a wellness app that we’re rolling out to all of the law enforcement officers within Butte County. We’re making it available to their spouses. partners or significant others, because we want them to have that resource. It’s a portal that provides people who download, they can download it onto their smartphone or device. It has a whole host of information relative to both mental as well as physical wellbeing. There are assessments on there that they can take to determine, you know, what might be going on with them and what the problems might be. And then it recommends and provides access to resources to address those particular issues.

The benefit is, it’s completely confidential, and it’s available to them 24 hours a day, seven days a week. So, you know, if you’re laying awake at three o’clock in the morning because you can’t sleep and you’re trying to figure out, you know, why you have a high level of anxiety, rather than waiting until the morning to figure out who you might want to call and going through that, you can reach over and grab the app and start reading about what’s going on and perhaps take some assessments…it makes it easier for them to reach out to mental health professionals who might be able to provide information. So along with that we are developing a relationship with mental health providers; clinicians. At this point we are working on developing relationship with three licensed therapists who specialize in providing treatment to first responders. We’re making their… They’re able to be contacted through the app. So that we’re trying to reduce the number of barriers that an individual has to reach out in getting help. They can also access our chaplains through our department, peer support, which are, you know, members within the department who they can reach out to.

We also have funding to actually pay the mental health providers to come into our organizations and provide training and group counseling, things of that nature. We will be working to help staff members who may be in need of Individual counseling to access that counseling, through either their insurance or through the employee assistance program, but if those programs don’t meet their needs, this funding will help us close that gap. The idea being that we don’t want someone to not get the assistance they need because they’re not able to financially pay for it.

Sarah Bohannon: How do you change a culture though, and make it so that it’s okay to talk about how you’re feeling?

Sheriff Honea: So that’s obviously the hardest thing, right. I think there’s a couple of things. First off, I spoke earlier about the fact that, you know, the Camp Fire was a tragedy that was just, you know, devastating throughout the community, but also, you know, greatly impacted the first responders. In that tragedy, as I said, there’s an opportunity because everybody went through it, everybody’s experiencing something, whether they’re willing to admit it initially or not. I think when you have that common experience, it sets the stage for conversation, it sets the stage for us to acknowledge that something is going on and begin to explore how we’re going to mitigate that or deal with that going forward. So with that, if you will, opportunity in place I felt as the sheriff, as a leader in a law enforcement community, I had to step out and acknowledge it myself, and find ways to seek help. So, you know, I certainly have been impacted by the Camp Fire myself and, you know, my family and my wife is a is a dispatcher and my daughter is in law enforcement as well. And I’ve seen how it impacted us both professionally as well as personally.  Just by way of example, you know, it’s not uncommon for me to wake up at three o’clock every morning and just kind of lay awake for several hours and thinking about all the things that I need to do to try to help move the community and move the organization forward in the wake of this tragedy. That difficulty sleeping wasn’t nearly as prevalent prior to the Camp Fire so there’s got to be some correlation. As we approach the anniversary date, I notice that my anxiety level is increasing. If that’s happening to me, that’s got to be happening to other people as well. So acknowledging that and admitting that openly to the public through this radio segment, and then to my staff, because I’ve talked about it, I think is how you start changing that culture.

What I also hope is that I think there’s an opportunity to strengthen our ties to the community and to build additional bridges into our community. What I mean by that is if as first responders become more in tune with the impacts of emotional trauma on themselves, I think that certainly gives them better perspective when they’re dealing with individuals in the community who have suffered trauma. We have so many people in our community who are going through so much as result of the Camp Fire. So having a better understanding how that impacts you, I think, lets you or helps you relate better to people that you’re dealing with in a professional capacity during the course of your day.

Sarah Bohannon : What are some things that have helped you cope with that day to day trauma with the Camp Fire? What are some things that that you’ve been able to do for yourself personally?

Sheriff Honea: So my understanding of physical wellbeing physical fitness and its impact on emotional wellbeing and your ability to deal with stress actually began before the Camp Fire and it actually goes back to the Orville Dam spillway incident, right, which was another major event that impacted our community. So I, as a result of that, really began to change my habits in terms of maintaining physical wellbeing, physical fitness, trying to eat more healthfully and utilizing that as my primary way of helping manage stress. So that is continued and somewhat intensified through the Camp Fire. I diligently try to make time every day to go and work out. Try to maintain physical fitness, and be mindful of what I’m eating to try to, you know, make sure that, you know, eating food that is healthy as opposed to, you know, food that isn’t contributing to, you know, poor health. So that has helped me a lot. As a matter of fact, there are days where the stress is pretty intense and I look forward all day to being able to get into the gym and work out some of that stress, right. I think the next strategy is where we’re at today. And this is part of it, just admitting that, you know, that had an impact. It’s something that I’m working on dealing with, but I want to encourage all of the first responders of Butte County to address those things, and members of our community, right? We’re all in this together from a collective standpoint. So I think acknowledging that and encouraging others to take a step forward, and then doing it myself, kind of leading by example, if you will, has also helped in terms of managing that impact and managing the ongoing day to day stress that the Camp Fire continues to visit upon all of us.

Beth Ruyak: That was Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea talking with Sarah Bohannon, news director at North State Public Radio in Chico. The app that the sheriff referred to is the BCSO health and wellness app. It’s available now to some law enforcement personnel in Butte County, but soon to be available to a wider group of agencies there. Friday, at this time, I want to let you know that you’ll hear a one-hour special produced by North State Public Radio. It’s about the first year after the Camp Fire and we’d like to recognize the North State team for their Edward R. Murrow Award for fire coverage. This is among the highest awards in journalism in the country. You’re listening to Insight on Cap Radio. Up next, The Laramie project.

About Kory Honea

Kory L. Honea became the 31st Sheriff of Butte County in May 2014.  Prior to becoming the Sheriff, Honea served as the Undersheriff for nearly four years. Sheriff Honea began his career with the Butte County Sheriff’s Office in 1993, when he was hired as a deputy sheriff.  Prior to that Sheriff Honea was employed by the Shasta County Sheriff’s Office.

During his law enforcement career Sheriff Honea has held assignments in corrections, patrol and investigations.  In 2000, Sheriff Honea transferred to the District Attorney’s Office as an investigator.  While at the District Attorney’s Office, Sheriff Honea promoted through the ranks to become the Chief Investigator in 2008.  Sheriff Honea held that position until his return to the Sheriff’s Office as Undersheriff in 2010.

Sheriff Honea holds a Juris Doctorate from the Taft School of Law and is a member of the State Bar of California.  He also holds an Associate of Arts degree from Butte College.  Sheriff Honea has extensive law enforcement training certified by the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST).