On Thursday afternoon, administrators from nine police and fire departments in Southwest Dallas County, and Tarrant and Ellis Counties gathered in Cedar Hill to talk about a first-of-its-kind pilot program to help first responders prepare for, and cope with the impact of seeing repeated trauma.
"The stuff you guys experience, it comes in at all tissue levels," Dr. Erica Sallee told the crowd. "It absolutely matters."
Through the Victims of Crime Act's Victim Assistance Formula Grant Program, Cedar Hill is helping develop the First Responder Mental Health Resiliency Program. The model pilot is a first for Texas that will eventually be used across the country.
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"We prepare physically to go do the job, but we do a very poor job of preparing mentally to go do the job," Cedar Hill Fire Captain Jason O'Neill said. "I used to be a much more laid back, let things go with the flow type of person, and now I'm high strung."
O'Neill has been a firefighter for 13 years. He says the traumatic scenes police and firefighters see on a regular basis add up, and can take a toll.
"Far too often we're told to just be tough, that it's just part of the job," O'Neill said. "There's a huge stigma in the fire service."
The goal of the program is to change that stigma of asking for help from a sign of weakness, to one of strength.
"We don't like to talk about those things that we've seen," O'Neill said. "A program like this is going to be superbly beneficial as a holistic approach to health in the fire service."
A study showed in 2017, more firefighters and police officers died by suicide than in the line of duty.
"If we can shine a light on an issue, the darkness can't hide," O'Neill said.