Colo. firefighters find benefits in Transcendental Meditation program
To promote wellness, Front Range Fire Rescue recently partnered with the David Lynch Foundation to teach agency staff the stress-relieving practice
By Morgan McKenzie
Greeley Tribune, Colo.
MILLIKEN, Colo. — Front Range Fire Rescue Chief Michael West pictures mental health for first responders as a bucket filling with water.
Each difficult call a first responder takes, every high-stress response and struggles outside of work all add water to the bucket.
If first responders don't have a way to dump some water out once in a while, the water, or stress, will overflow the bucket. Overwhelming stress can lead to dangerous physical and mental health issues that can impact first responders' ability to adequately perform their duties and provide help when people need it the most.
Front Range Fire recently partnered with the David Lynch Foundation to teach agency staff Transcendental Meditation. The effort is one of many at Front Range Fire to promote employees' wellness.
The idea began with West's personal observations in the fire service and his own mental health needs.
Formed in 2018, Front Range Fire is an all-hazards first response agency that serves and protects the residents of Johnstown, Milliken, Weld County and Larimer County. Although relatively new, the agency has roots dating back to the early 1900s with two former fire districts — Johnstown Fire Protection District and Milliken Fire Protection District.
The two joined forces in 2015 as a fire authority, becoming a special district in 2018.
West, a fourth-generation firefighter in his family, has worked in the fire service for the past 41 years. In 2019, he came to Front Range Fire to become the agency's second fire chief.
In his most recent years on the job, West started noticing a lapse in his mental health and wellness. Meditation emerged as a solution for the long-time firefighter. But West, like many people, didn't find results working with meditation apps and videos.
At the start of this year, West learned about Transcendental Meditation. The simplicity of the practice drew him in.
The meditation doesn't involve chanting or incense, rather it involves closing your eyes for 20 minutes, two times per day, West said. Practitioners are also given a mantra or a word that directs their minds away from the thoughts and stresses of life.
"One of their sayings is, 'If you're trying, you're doing it wrong,'" West said.
West was the first at Front Range Fire to give the meditation a try and quickly found the practice could be of use to other firefighters. His journey with Transcendental Meditation began with a class taught by a Greeley instructor. Further research led him to the David Lynch Foundation's Center for Resilience, a nonprofit dedicated to healing traumatic stress and raising performance.
For the past 15 years, the nonprofit has taught Transcendental Meditation techniques to military veterans, firefighters and law enforcement, according to its website.
Beginnings of successful partnership
The David Lynch Foundation Center for Resilience operates The Resilient Responder's Program, which is committed to addressing the nationwide crisis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), substance use disorder and suicide among first responders.
While the physical aspects of firefighting are important, mental health aspects are often overlooked, West said.
"About 100 firefighters die in the line of duty each year," West said. "In the last several years, there's been more documented firefighter suicides than line-of-duty deaths."
PTSD among firefighters isn't typically from a singular traumatic incident while on duty. West said it's a cumulative effect of multiple bad calls and constantly witnessing things no one should ever see.
Transcendental Meditation is one method for firefighters to manage stress. Research shows the practice reduces blood pressure, increases sleep quality, reduces stress and PTSD symptoms, decreases the risk of heart disease, allows for greater alertness and more, according to the David Lynch Foundation.
More Front Range Fire staff volunteered to attend the first round of Transcendental Meditation classes than there were spots available. As of May, only 25% of the agency has completed classes, West said.
Deputy Chief Nat Kronholm, Batallion Chief Shane Doyon and Engineer Adam Nieto completed the classes in early May.
Each firefighter took four classes with an instructor from the David Lynch Foundation. The first day was a one-on-one class followed by three classes with the full group. The classes included discussing individual experiences, struggles and barriers in the industry.
"The experience is very individual," Kronholm said.
Kronholm wanted a way to better manage stress after trying out other methods that didn't stick, including mindfulness meditation. As West shared about his experiences with Transcendental Meditation, heads began to turn.
"The job we work is going to be high-stress. Everybody has life stress outside of here," Kronholm said. "I was looking for something to help find some calm, centeredness or focus."
Some people may see immediate results from the practice, but it can take a few months for others. A few participants who experienced sleeping problems already began to see positive changes in sleeping patterns, such as getting an hour or two more each night. Others have noticed minimal changes within the first few weeks.
"It's not really something where you necessarily feel different or you see results when you're doing it," Doyon said. "It's more results later on."
West plans to check in with the participating employees once a month to measure the program's success, including changes to sleep, health, relationships and stress.
Although many are new to the practice, West can attest to the benefits from his personal experience a few months into the program. He reported sleeping better, significantly lower heart rate and being less reactive to stress.
West said more classes are coming to meet the demand of the agency's employees.
When West joined the fire service 41 years ago, the priority was on physical health — lifting weights and building up muscle. Over the years, first responder agencies started making changes that concentrate on improving mental health and wellness.
"That's great if you're really strong, but if you're struggling paying the bills at home or if you're struggling with relationships at home, that stuff comes with you to work and it shows up in the way you handle the next emergency, the way you interact with firefighters, etc.," West said.
Front Range Fire prides itself on utilizing the eight dimensions of wellness as developed by Peggy Swarbrick: emotional, spiritual, intellectual, financial, environmental, social, physical and career. The model makes sure all aspects of a person's life are taken care of.
West described the dimensions as a wheel with mental health touching on each section of the wheel.
"If you have a tire that had a nail in it, it's not flat just where the nail is; it's flat everywhere," West said.
To help keep the wheel of wellness spinning successfully, West said, Front Range Fire has upped its game with all aspects of physical and mental well-being within the past four years, including stretching, yoga and more.
The agency added an employee assistance program with services including therapy, financial advice and legal advice. It also recently joined a statewide trust that initially financially helped firefighters diagnosed with cancer or heart conditions and has grown to help with mental health finances, as well.
Led by Nieto and mirrored by other departments across the state, the agency recently introduced a therapy dog program. Front Range Fire staff own the dogs, unlike similar programs where the dogs are kept as "station dogs."
The trained therapy dogs come to shifts with their owners and return home with their owners.
"After coming back from a difficult call ... research shows that being around animals, specifically a dog, really helped calm people down and maybe open up to talking about the difficulties," Nieto said.
Agencies and first responders have their own methods of what works best, which is why adding more and more programming surrounding mental health is crucial, West said.
To Nieto, the Transcendental Meditation program makes sense to offer to first responders. He said he and others in the fire service appreciate the options and opportunities to improve mental health and wellness.
"You feel heard," Nieto said. "You feel supported."
But not every course is going to work for every member of a department, Doyon said. He anticipates some people won't see Transcendental Meditation through, while others will latch onto it and see the benefits. No matter what, Doyon said, it's still worth a try even if it helps only a handful of people.
"I don't think there's one answer for everyone, but I think if we have a lot of answers, someone will find the one for them," West said.
Pioneers of Colorado
Front Range Fire is the only fire agency in Colorado to implement the program, according to West. He said it feels good to pave the way for the future of mental health for first responders in the state.
"I'm very proud of our fire department," West said. "We tend to be really open to new and innovative ideas."
In the past few weeks, the agency has received several phone calls from neighboring departments that are taking an interest in the program. West thinks the practice will spread throughout the state.
"If we can make a difference in someone's life, that's why we're here," he said.
Prior to his time as chief, West worked with a larger department, where it was difficult to have one shared vision. West believes there is a shared vision at Front Range Fire on how the staff takes care of one another and how they treat each other.
"I think it becomes fulfilling, rewarding just because I know that this group of firefighters ... not only are they going to retire happy and healthy, but they're also going to share that with the next generation of firefighters and the generation after that," West said.
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