Chris Smith: How do first responders handle it all? Often, not well

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Chances are you’ve asked a law enforcement officer, firefighter or emergency medical technician you’ve met: How do you get by and stay normal, given what you do and witness day after day at crime, fire and accident scenes?

The truth, say retired paramedic Susan Farren and retired firefighter Ron Shull, is that many first responders are eaten up by what they experience on the job.

“We were never taught to deal with the traumas we faced,” said Shull, who served 31 years with the Santa Rosa Fire Department.

He and Farren, who retired to writing and advocacy after 33 years as an ambulance paramedic, abhor the suffering inflicted on their colleagues by the death, horror and stress they’ve experienced.

“Last year, more police officers and firefighters died by suicide than in the line of duty,” Shull said at the Sonoma County Fair booth and he and Farren are staffing.

Indeed, USA Today reported that 243 American law-enforcement officers and firefighters took their own lives in 2017, compared to the 223 killed on the job.

Then there are the high rates of divorce, substance abuse, mental distress and chronic illness.

A pivotal moment in Farren’s life came when a doctor who was treating her for kidney cancer in 2016 remarked, “We see a lot of this in first responders.”

Enough. “This is killing us,” she said.

Farren is doing something dramatic. She created the nonprofit First Responder Resiliency Inc. She’s working with Shull and others to create a place where peers will teach those who respond to crises to take care of themselves.

“We’re going to put PTSD out of business,” Farren pledged.

The center she envisions will offer all manner of services and resources to help first responders remain physically and emotionally well, including peer counseling, mindfulness training, yoga, recreation and coaching in physical fitness and nutrition.

The First Responder Resiliency Team will host a fundraiser and introductory event from 5-8 p.m. Thursday at the Masonic Lodge at 855 Seventh St. in Santa Rosa. For details go to:

There will be cheeses, beers from Lagunitas, Toad Hollow Vineyards wines and, surely, a good deal of talk on how to help the people who keep us safe stay safe, too.


HE DIED SERVING: Kudos to the Santa Rosa City Council for adjourning its Tuesday night meeting in the memory of Jairus Ayeta, who died while working in the wake of the disastrous Carr fire in Shasta County.

Known best as Jay, the 21-year-old had lived in Santa Rosa and was an apprentice lineman with PG&E. He was killed in a traffic accident Saturday while helping restore electrical power outside of Redding.

In its adjournment tribute to Ayeta, the Santa Rosa council noted the Uganda native was one of many immigrants working to protect California during the current scourge of wildfires.

There’s a crowdfunding appeal to help Ayeta’s family as it struggles with his death. It’s at

Chris Smith is at 707-521-5211 and

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