New Sonoma County initiatives seek to help first responders cope with health toll of their work
She didn’t know it, but retired paramedic Susan Farren’s timing was impeccable.
A bout with kidney cancer in 2016 ended her long career on ambulances. Her experience with the illness opened her eyes to research showing first responders are more susceptible to certain diseases and health problems. A common factor is stress.
Once healthy, she sold her house to get the seed money to start First Responders Resiliency Inc. in early 2017. The nonprofit program teaches police, fire and emergency workers how stress affects the body and practices to withstand the pressures from their jobs.
That year, the October fires erupted amid a dry, inland windstorm. Infernos burned across Northern California, scorching more than 245,000 acres and killing at least 44 people from the North Bay to the Sierra Nevada foothills. In Sonoma County, the Tubbs fire tore through suburban Santa Rosa neighborhoods in the middle of the night and was for hours a dangerous and terrifying rescue mission for first responders.
“After Tubbs, the thing I became most painfully aware of was how much pressure and stress these firefighters had to absorb and suppress and go home and pretend they were normal,” Farren said. “It was very much like seeing soldiers come back from war.”
Many in the fire service in Sonoma County describe the 2017 firestorm as a major turning point for a profession already conditioned to work hard under dangerous circumstances. The destruction was so broad and on home turf.
And the siege of annual wildfires since then have accentuated the heavy burden.
“I’ve been in the fire service for almost 40 years and I’ve never seen the level of impacts on firefighter safety that I’ve witnessed over the last four to five years,” Sonoma County Fire District Chief Mark Heine said.
First responders tend to have higher rates of behavioral health conditions, such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder than the general population, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Under normal circumstances, the jobs insert these workers into difficult and dangerous moments, from car crashes to fights, medical emergencies and fires.
But the past several years have brought megafires to Sonoma County nearly every year, and imposed a more taxing kind of normality.
The 2019 Kincade fire that threatened to overrun Windsor forced the evacuation of nearly 200,000 people from the Santa Rosa Plain to the ocean. And last year’s Meyers, Walbridge and Glass fires laid siege to opposite ends of the county, claiming almost 500 homes in blazes that dominated local life from August into October.
All the while, a pandemic has raged, putting firefighters on the front lines as emergency medical responders nearly every day. As is, about 80% of the work of a municipal firefighter involves emergency medical response for people who call 911.
Authorities are taking steps to address the toll such work can take on the firefighting ranks.
Santa Rosa Deputy Fire Chief Travers Collins said the city revamped its behavioral health programs for its employees last year. A key moment that underscored the need for specialized care came after a city firefighter who experienced profound psychological trauma sought out care but found providers unfamiliar with the type of trauma first responders experience, Collins said.
“That, for me at least, was one of the pushes to ensure that when our members are brave enough to ask for help, we give them competent help,” he said.
Sonya McVay Straub, a local sports rehabilitation therapist, is one of those seeking to expand the field of specialized treatment for first responders.
When the Tubbs fire broke out Oct. 8, 2017, a police officer made the rounds in her Larkfield apartment complex and pounded on her door.
Straub specialized in working with race car drivers but had begun a side practice providing free care for veterans. She had come to work with veterans who worked in law enforcement and the fire service and had learned about the toll those professions take on a body. So once her family had evacuated to Marin County, she turned around and drove back to Santa Rosa hoping she could somehow help.
She ended up working alongside the Red Cross and providing support for firefighters and others who came in for rest between shifts.
“I’m treating and taping the best that I can and giving some mobility or structured rehab exercise to get them back on the line,” Straub said. “I’d bring boxes and boxes and boxes of heat packs, make sure they had Advil.”
She recalls meeting a firefighter “dragging his leg behind him, telling me, ’You have to get me back out there.’ ”