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Peer support helps Calif. FFs deal positively with stress, trauma

The Orange County Fire Authority program helps firefighters with stress and serves as a liaison to additional mental health resources


Capt. Brett Cowdell of the Orange County Fire Authority at Station 58 in Ladera Ranch. He is a senior peer support counselor who helps colleagues with mental health. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)

By Mona Darwish
The Orange County Register

ORANGE COUNTY, Calif. — Shootings, stabbings, fires, car collisions — firefighters often witness traumatic events while answering the public’s calls for help.

But who answers their calls in times of need?

For years, the culture within many fire departments was one of silence when it came to the topic of mental health.

That has changed.

“The traditional way was just deal with it and move on — kind of an Old West mentality of, ‘Tough it out,’ ” said Capt. Brett Cowdell of the Orange County Fire Authority. “We found that suicidal ideations, that divorce, that negative addictions like alcohol, drugs, and pornography find their way into folks’ lives if (traumas are) not dealt with in a positive manner.”

The agency was spurred on to create a peer-support program after the death of Capt. Eric Weuve, a 16-year veteran who in 2016 jumped off of the Crown Valley Parkway overpass and onto the 5 Freeway in south Orange County — getting fatally struck by a big rig.

The regular display of blood and violence, combined with days-long shifts and poor sleep, can take a toll on firefighters. Negative effects of trauma can show up later in a firefighter’s career, said Cowdell, who was hired alongside Weuve.

“All of these traumas (can) build up in your amygdala, which is your stress processor in your brain, and we don’t deal with them until our amygdala fills up and spills out,” Cowdell said. Unless the traumas are properly addressed, “It’s going to find its way out through negative relationships, aggressive behavior, short temper, and compromised relationships with spouses.”

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At least 40 firefighters make up the peer-support program, those available for phone calls on and off duty to help their colleagues in need, regardless if it’s job-related or not. Capt. Cowdell is a senior peer supporter who also serves as a liaison by referring individuals to additional mental-health resources, such as to counseling.

For counseling services, many fire departments, including the Orange County Fire Authority, partner with The Counseling Team International, which is based in San Bernardino. The organization provides clinicians trained to work with first responders. In emergencies, clinicians are only a phone call away for personnel in need of assistance, with services also available for family members such as spouses and children under age 26.

“I have close friends who have seriously considered suicide on the job, who’ve been caught just in the nick of time,” Cowdell said. “I’ve been to therapy, I’ve used some of the tools we have available to us so I’m a big advocate of mental wellness and making sure people get directed to the appropriate resources.”

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At the Orange County Fire Authority, firefighters who witness traumatic events such as a baby’s death or August’s mass shooting at Cook’s Corner in Trabuco Canyon, when a retired Ventura County sheriff’s deputy upset at his estranged wife killed three and injured others at the bar-restaurant, undergo a critical-incident debriefing.

A chaplain, a clinician, and a battalion chief join them to debrief and process the event.

“Hopefully that trauma box we all have can get emptied incident by incident,” said Cowdell, who helps organize the debriefings. “We don’t let them pile up anymore. We’re trying to be much more proactive.”

Fire chaplains often provide a supportive role for firefighters and their families following incidents including those with major injuries and line-of-duty deaths. In the Los Angeles County Fire Department, chaplains are firefighters with that additional role. As Los Angeles County Fire Department Capt. Vince Roldan puts it, chaplains serve as a bridge to spiritual care, no matter the faith or the denomination.

“Spiritual care is really being a ministry of presence, so (firefighters) and family members don’t feel like they’re carrying that burden alone,” Roldan said.

A 20-year veteran in the fire service, Roldan got involved in the chaplain service more than four years ago as a way to give back, following a year-long break to recover from an on-duty leg injury. Before being injured on the job, over six months Roldan witnessed six deaths involving children, some under the age of three.

Not long after that, he had his first panic attack.

“At first, I didn’t even understand what was happening,” Roldan recalled. “When I went to bed that night, I wasn’t thinking about the calls.”

At that moment, he said, his cup had overflowed.

The year-long break allowed him to recover physically, mentally, and spiritually. After pursuing a role in the chaplain program, Roldan now serves as the lead chaplain in the department, made up of five on-duty firefighters and five retirees.

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One-on-one conversations between chaplains and personnel are always confidential. Chaplains with the Los Angeles County Fire Department go through the peer-support training program and can help determine where someone is at by listening and asking questions.

The department has approximately 200 members on its peer-support team.

“One beautiful thing about this career is you have that closeness,” Roldan said. “When you’re in the fire service, you’re part of a family.”

Roldan said the barriers and stigma around reaching out for help have melted away, and mental-health resources are utilized by current firefighters as well as retirees. Sometimes individuals just need to get something off of their chests, and other times firefighters may request faith-based referrals or need clinicians who understand their culture.

For Roldan, having close relationships with his peers allowed him to feel comfortable talking about issues he faced.

“Having that faith component brings that hope component,” Roldan said. “You see hope on the horizon, that’s what helped me heal what I went through.”

On Jan. 21, shortly after 10:20 p.m., Monterey Park Fire Engineer Jon Chang and his crew got a call for a single gunshot wound in a ballroom. Chang, who had worked at the city’s department for eight years and was about to roll on the call, looked over at a rookie firefighter and told him not to worry, let’s just “go see what we have.”

“It started off as one, but as you listened to the radio, it started escalating, like, ‘Oh, we have two, we have three, five, six (wounded),’ and it just kept going up,” Chang recalled.

In total, 11 people were killed and nine others hospitalized for injuries — 72-year-old Huu Can Tran had entered the dance studio and shot 20 people. The next day, while on the loose but with police closing in, he was found with a self-inflicted gunshot wound in a van in Torrance.

But before police found Tran, firefighters were vulnerable if he returned.

The thought of possibly losing one of his fellow firefighters, family members to him, reminded Chang of the loss he experienced after a role model, Long Beach Fire Capt. Dave Rosa was fatally shot in 2018 by a 77-year-old man who had set off a murder-suicide explosion at his retirement home.

Chang had worked for the Long Beach Fire Department, leaving before Rosa was killed.

Though Chang didn’t realize it at the time, that loss deeply impacted him — and quickly surfaced during the response to the ballroom victims.

A day after the Monterey Park shooting, the firefighters who responded were able to discuss their experiences with one other in an after-action review, a form of debriefing that Chang says has become more frequent in the department as newer generations move up in the ranks. An in-house therapist is also available to meet with firefighters, along with peer-support counselors and therapy dogs provided by the department’s union.

“It’s great, when you hear a perspective from someone else — good or bad, everyone takes away something,” Change said. “You’re better equipped for the next time something were to happen.”

In a conversation with the department’s therapist, Chang acknowledged he had a difficult time retelling the death of the late captain. Chang said through therapy, he was able to process the two events and come to terms with them.

Friends and family members can provide support. And his co-workers.

“That’s why you have a crew,” he said, “it’s a bond that helps you cope with it all.”

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