Photo courtesy of Long Beach Fire Department. 

Newly recruited Long Beach firefighter-paramedics are now being sent into the field with a few more items in their toolbox—training on how to help people suffering from mental illness.

In late February, the Long Beach Fire Department’s HEART team led the department’s 21 newest recruits on an 8-hour course that teaches a five-step action plan encompassing the skills, resources and knowledge to help those in crisis connect with professional, peer and self-help care, according to LBFD spokesman Jake Heflin.

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During the “Mental Health First Aid for Public Safety” class that took place February 23, participants learned the unique risk factors and warning signs of mental health problems as well as the importance of early intervention and how first responders can help those in crisis or experiencing a mental health challenge.

“The training provides firefighters with a better understanding of mental illnesses so they can respond to mental health-related calls appropriately without compromising the safety of the responders as well as the safety of the patient,” Heflin stated.

While the course is taught to public safety audiences nationally, the training last month was taught by Joel Davis and Justin Verga who are assigned to the HEART unit and who are the first two firefighter-paramedics certified to instruct the class locally.

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The pair have seen firsthand the importance of this training. While their job is to help those experiencing homelessness, some of those individuals may also be suffering from a mental illness.

One of the goals of the HEART team is to provide education to firefighters and paramedics about “the complex and diverse needs of the unsheltered homeless population” and how to connect them to the appropriate services.

As such, this training will emphasize strategies for dealing with situations that arise among the large population of homeless individuals who have mental health problems. The training also satisfies the County of Los Angeles Homelessness Initiative’s first phase of “Strategy E-4”, which outlines creating a coordinated system through “First Responder Training,” according to the LBFD.

LBFD is the first fire department on the West Coast to include this class as part of the required initial training for new fire department recruits and part of a long-range plan to train all firefighters and paramedics working in the city, officials said.

The training was done in partnership with Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) USA, part of the National Council for Behavioral Health. MHFA USA is included on the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices (NREPP).

Stephanie Rivera is the community engagement editor. Reach her at [email protected] or on Twitter at @StephRivera88.