Care for our first responders

Jan 26, 2023 | Communities

Compiled by Mary-Justine Lanyon

In the aftermath of the two recent fatalities on mountain highways, a question arose: Who takes care of the men and women who respond to these incidents? How do they deal with the anguish of being called out to search for a missing person, to recover someone from a traffic collision, to help folks whose home catches on fire?

We reached out to the CHP, the sheriff’s department, County Fire, the Arrowbear Lake Fire Department and the Running Springs Fire Department.

What they had to say reassures us that the personnel from these agencies are being well cared for.


I cannot speak for the first responders on scene of the incident in Arrowbear but I have been on scenes that were as tragic. As CHP officers, we understand that we have a very important job to perform in any incident.

The first thing on our mind is securing the scene to ensure that all personnel and parties involved are safe. Next is preservation of life. This is where things may get difficult because there are times where it is impossible for officers to help. Some examples are when a vehicle is fully engulfed in fire, or a vehicle is upside down in a ravine with a strong current.

Being unable to help someone in need has been the worst feeling I have experienced in this profession.

Finally, we must put our feelings aside for the moment, perform our duties and complete a thorough investigation of the incident to provide the most accurate information and provide answers to the family of the involved parties.

The California Highway Patrol does a great job offering emotional support programs for anyone who needs to speak to a professional about their experiences. Additionally, we as officers have each other to rely on and talk to through incidents, via critical incident debriefs.

Both avenues provide a great way to process our emotions and experiences.


The sheriff’s department has several ways to care for our personnel’s mental health at all times, not just after a major or traumatic incident.

If a deputy is involved in an officer-involved shooting, the involved deputies must speak to a counselor and be cleared to return to duty by the mental health specialist. Other traumatic incidents are dealt with on a case-by-case basis where it is determined if the deputies are required to speak to a mental health specialist.

If a deputy on their own wishes to speak to a mental health specialist, they can call the counseling team, free of charge, for an appointment at any time.

The department also has a Wellness app that provides access to peer counseling, chaplains and advice for our personnel.

Our department just opened a Wellness Center at our headquarters and personnel can go there at anytime just to talk to someone.

All these discussions are private and not shared with anyone in the department, unless the person is determined to not be fit for duty. If that is the case, the department will assist the employee with additional care.

The department takes the mental health of our personnel very seriously.

SAN BERNARDINO COUNTY FIRE – Battalion Chief Mark Bixler

We unfortunately have many difficult incidents that we respond to in this profession but I believe we do a good job of taking care of each other and making sure our members’ needs are taking care of.

We have many programs in place for our personnel for all instances of critical and emotional responses to assist employees through both personal and professional crisis.

  • Peer Support Program: This program is an employee assistance program offering help and guidance by selected trained personnel to all department members. It is peers that have gone through training to assist other peers in difficult circumstances.
  • Chaplain Program: This program utilizes qualified personnel to provide ministerial support designated to meet emotional and spiritual needs of department personnel and/or their families along with the victims the department serves.
  • CISD – Critical Incident Stress Debriefing Team: This team’s function is to provide support and professional intervention to mitigate the impact of stress reactions on members following any situation/incident which causes them to experience unusually strong emotional reactions which have the potential to interfere with their ability to function either on duty or at home.
  • Canine Program: Our department has five service dogs – the most of any fire department in the country – who have gone through training for emotional support to assist our members in times of need. They are available to all members and their families and are also utilized for the critical incident stress debriefings that our members attend to diffuse stress.
  • CTI: The department also contracts with Counseling Team International under the direction of a psychological doctor who provides a variety of support services including emotional and stress management for our members.


As professionals, we learn to cope with tragic and catastrophic incidents we encounter on a normal basis.

However, we do conduct after-action reviews with our personnel after all major incidents. This allows our firefighters the ability to openly and freely discuss the incident among those who were on scene.

If we do notice a change in someone’s normal behavior, we do offer critical incident debriefing; this a peer support team.


Our same crew was on the responses to both of the recent fatal traffic accidents. That can be problematic but, in the last few years, not only the Running Springs Fire Department but the fire service has recognized the importance of recognizing and dealing with critical incident stress.

All California Basic Fire Academies now have in place a four-hour training module in Critical Incident Stress. Most departments, including ours, have some type of program in place. We currently have agreements with two voluntary local chaplains who can assist if our personnel have the need.

We are in the process of updating our policy to be more comprehensive and include the use of peer counselors. In the interim, we currently have peer counselors available upon request via mutual aid through the San Bernardino and Los Angeles County Fire Departments; once the call goes out, many smaller agencies step up to assist.

Peer counselors have proven to be a huge benefit to dealing with critical incidents. Firefighters, like most people, feel more comfortable talking to their own peer group. Peer counselors have a level of training to allow them to assist and recognize if further intervention is required.

This is my 40th year in the fire service. The biggest change I have seen is in the recognition, whether conscious or otherwise, on the part of veteran and newer firefighters of the need to debrief. In the “old days” when you came back from a “rough” call, usually involving infants or children, the station would be quiet, and everybody would pretty much go their own way.

Most of the time now, the firefighters come back and talk about the call. There is not a “fear” to say something was troubling about the call, and many times the crew just uses it as a chance to also talk about what went right and what went wrong operationally as well.


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