New recruits help first re­spon­ders with stress

The Prince George Citizen - - News - Lau­rel DEMKOVICH

On a re­cent af­ter­noon, the Fair­fax, Va. County Po­lice Depart­ment’s new­est four-legged recruits were prac­tic­ing open­ing doors.

At the en­trance to the county gov­ern­ment cen­tre, most of the dogs had no prob­lem push­ing the hand­i­cap but­ton to make the glass door swing out. But Holmes, a 10-month-old golden re­triever who has a hard time fo­cus­ing around other dogs, paused.

“Holmes, touch!” his han­dler Jill Mil­loy urged, plac­ing a treat in front of the but­ton. “Touch!”

Holmes sniffed around for a few sec­onds, while the han­dlers and in­struc­tors held their breath. They were hop­ing to see im­prove­ments at this train­ing ses­sion, in­struc­tor Randy Nieves said.

Fi­nally, the dog went for the treat and com­pleted his task. The han­dlers clapped.

“Nice job, Holmes!” Nieves said. “Good boy!”

The depart­ment has long used dogs to search for il­le­gal drugs or ex­plo­sives or to track missing peo­ple. But Holmes and his fel­low recruits, Labrador re­triev­ers and golden re­triev­ers, will have a far dif­fer­ent role. In­stead of help­ing to solve or un­cover crimes, they will be tasked with help­ing first re­spon­ders cope with the stress of the job.

De­part­ments across the coun­try have had a grow­ing aware­ness of the toll that re­spond­ing to crime scenes and traf­fic ac­ci­dents and searching for sus­pects can have on of­fi­cers and other emer­gency work­ers. Ac­cord­ing to Blue H.E.L.P., a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion that tracks of­fi­cer sui­cides, more po­lice of­fi­cers died last year by sui­cide than the to­tal num­ber of line-of-duty deaths.

“What peo­ple don’t re­al­ize is we don’t get called when peo­ple are hav­ing a good day,” said Christophe­r Sharp, a sec­ond lieu­tenant in the ma­jor crimes bureau who is help­ing to train one of the dogs. “We’re al­ways get­ting called when peo­ple are hav­ing their worst day.”

The dogs are just the lat­est step to­ward a fo­cus on of­fi­cer men­tal health for the Fair­fax depart­ment.

Af­ter a 2006 shoot­ing at a po­lice sta­tion that left one de­tec­tive dead, the depart­ment rec­og­nized it needed to pro­vide ser­vices for of­fi­cers who ex­pe­ri­ence trauma, Po­lice Chief Ed­win Roessler said. The depart­ment hired a risk man­ager and psy­chol­o­gists. It also cre­ated in­ci­dent sup­port ser­vices, which in­cludes a team of psy­chol­o­gists, peer sup­port groups, an em­ployee as­sis­tance pro­gram and other aspects to sup­port first re­spon­ders’ men­tal health.

Af­ter a po­lice of­fi­cer took his own life in 2017 close to the McLean po­lice sta­tion, Roessler worked with Jaysyn Car­son, di­rec­tor of in­ci­dent sup­port ser­vices, to create a DVD that fea­tures first re­spon­ders talk­ing about their men­tal health. The chief was among them.

The main mes­sage, Roessler said, is that it’s OK not to be OK.

“I, as your chief, suf­fer, strug­gle every day,” Roessler ex­plains to his of­fi­cers. “We all do.”

A lit­tle more than a year ago, Roessler met with Roger Giese – founder and chief ex­ec­u­tive of Fred­er­icks­burg-based First Re­spon­der K9, which trains ser­vice dogs – to dis­cuss a part­ner­ship cen­tered on the role dogs could play in help­ing first re­spon­ders stay healthy.

The idea was sim­ple: First Re­spon­der K9 would pro­vide the dogs, the equip­ment and the train­ing. The po­lice depart­ment would pro­vide train­ers and help find first re­spon­ders who could keep the dogs once they were trained. The depart­ment would get to keep two of the dogs.

The five dogs are being trained dur­ing the next two years as part of the part­ner­ship. They will all be cer­ti­fied ac­cord­ing to As­sis­tance Dogs In­ter­na­tional stan­dards.

Three of them – Indy, Sully and Len­nie – will be given to first re­spon­ders who suf­fer from PTSD, de­pres­sion or have other phys­i­cal or men­tal chal­lenges.

Holmes and Jack, though, will work in the field. Their job will be to go to po­ten­tially trau­matic events and pro­vide com­fort for first re­spon­ders at the scene.

“The dogs are just there to bring the emo­tional level down,” said Giese, who spent years train­ing dogs for mil­i­tary vet­er­ans. “So when first re­spon­ders go back to their room at night, they can get a more rest­ful sleep.”

Wayne Mon­taño, fire and EMS li­ai­son for First Re­spon­ders K9, thinks it will help. He re­mem­bers when he was called to the Pen­tagon on 9/11. Search-and-res­cue dogs were there to as­sist.

“At the end of the day, ev­ery­one wanted to pet those dogs, but those dogs were so ex­hausted from do­ing their jobs,” Mon­taño said.

Mil­loy, Holmes’s han­dler, is also a clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist in the po­lice depart­ment. When some­one ex­pe­ri­ences a trauma, she said, there are nu­mer­ous phys­i­o­log­i­cal changes that oc­cur that de­ter­mine how well some­one does in re­cov­ery, whether the event sticks with them. One of those changes is an increase in a per­son’s heart rate, which can be one of the pre­dic­tors of PTSD, Mil­loy said.

“But when a dog walks into the room, oxy­tocin is re­leased in the first re­spon­der and that in­ter­rupts the stress re­sponse,” Mil­loy said. “If you can in­ter­rupt, say the heart rate go­ing up, that’s pro­tec­tive for first re­spon­ders.”

De­part­ments across the coun­try are mak­ing sim­i­lar ef­forts to sup­port of­fi­cers’ men­tal health. Roessler and Car­son have spo­ken at na­tional con­fer­ences and shared their ideas with lead­er­ship at other law en­force­ment agen­cies.

In April, 300 po­lice chiefs and law en­force­ment of­fi­cials from across the coun­try came to­gether to dis­cuss sui­cide among po­lice of­fi­cers and how to pre­vent it.

First Re­spon­der K9 hopes to ex­pand the or­ga­ni­za­tion na­tion­ally and said it is in early talks with other de­part­ments in the area. The or­ga­ni­za­tion’s goal is to get 30 dogs to first re­spon­ders within the next two to three years, and its part­ner­ship with Fair­fax County is just part of that, Giese said. The group is train­ing 14 pup­pies, with more on the way.

The dogs in Fair­fax each have their own business card, com­plete with their photo and their name­sake – most dogs are named af­ter a fallen first re­spon­der. They are also great ice break­ers when of­fi­cers are in the com­mu­nity, Roessler said, adding that they hu­man­ize law en­force­ment.

At the end of their re­cent train­ing ses­sion, the dogs and their han­dlers left the gov­ern­ment cen­ter and were stopped out­side by nu­mer­ous county em­ploy­ees ask­ing to pet the an­i­mals. Sa­man­tha Hud­son, planning and cap­i­tal projects man­ager, stopped han­dler Randy Brooks so she could say hello to Indy, a choco­late Labrador named for the In­di­anapo­lis Fire Depart­ment.

“You’re mak­ing a lot of peo­ple’s days,” Hud­son said.

Brooks smiled. “We’re go­ing to make a lot of peo­ple’s lives, too.”


Above, Len­nie waits for his next les­son at the Fair­fax County, Va., gov­ern­ment cen­tre. Left, Holmes is taught how to trig­ger an au­to­matic door opener.

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