Long Beach Fire Department Expands Mental Health Training To Help Themselves

The Long Beach Fire Department (LBFD) has added a new mental health curriculum for its firefighters, training meant to help them better respond to high-stress emergency situations.

The course, titled “Mental Health First Aid for Fire and EMS”, was recently developed in the East Coast where the LBFD’s homeless outreach team attended to learn how to teach it to fellow firefighters.

The course provides a five-step action plan to help those in a mental health crisis and to learn how to recognize and assist other firefighters who may have behavioral health issues as a result of constant exposure to high-stress emergency scenes, according to LBPD officials.

“The class was designed for us to go out and understand the mental health issues that our patients are experiencing, but what they started to discover as they developed this class is behavioral health for firefighters is becoming a fairly significant topic,” said Deputy Fire Chief Jim Rexwinkle.

Firefighter-paramedic Justin Verga, who is one-half of the LBFD’s HEART team that is teaching the curriculum, said that in 2016 a total of 148 firefighters committed suicide nationwide, as opposed to the 70 firefighters who died in the line of duty.

“Since we took the class this completely relates to the work we are doing here with the homeless, but also every patient we come into contact with that might be in crisis or even coworkers or family life at home,” Verga said. “Just like CPR training, it directly relates to anything, you know what to start doing when you have the training.”

“As a society, when we don’t understand something we place a stigma on it,” LBFD firefighter-paramedic and HEART team member Joel Davis says to recruits during a newly implemented mental health training on Wednesday. Photos by Stephanie Rivera.

Rexwinkle noted that these stresses are akin to the post-traumatic stress military personnel experience.

“When you go into an incident of a carload of kids that were ejected and now they are all dead, you have to go home and deal with that in a certain way and if you don’t deal with it and just throw it away, it’s going to pile up, and eventually you will have to deal with it and how you deal with it can be in an unhealthy way,” Rexwinkle said.

This latest training builds upon the “Mental Health First Aid for Public Safety” class which mainly focused on patients, which Long Beach firefighters first took in February.

Using the ALGEE plan, firefighters learn to Assess for risk of suicide or harm, Listen non-judgmentally, Give reassurance and information, Encourage self help and peer support, and Encourage professional help or other resources.

“This is a very macho career and it’s tough for a lot of guys to reach out and say they need help,” Verga said. “This gives them that toolbox to say they need help.”

The only other fire department currently offering this training to its first responders is located in Charlotte, North Carolina, which started teaching the curriculum Monday.

Wednesday’s 8-hour class at LBFD’s Regional Training Center marked the department’s first successful delivery of the curriculum on the West Coast, according to fire officials. The class was taught to recruits who returned to the training center to take written exams in order to get off of probation, according to Rexwinkle.

This training is mandatory for all recruits going through the academy with the department also working on securing funding to eventually train all firefighters by 2019.

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Stephanie Rivera is the immigration and diversity reporter for the Long Beach Post. Growing up as one of six kids in the working-class immigrant suburb of South Gate, she was taught the importance of civic engagement and to show compassion for others. After graduating from CSULB with a degree in journalism, Stephanie worked for Patch Latino and City News Service before coming to the Long Beach Post in 2015. An avid Harry Potter fan, Stephanie now lives in Bixby Knolls with her boyfriend and their bearded dragon, Austin.