STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Emergency responders like police officers and firefighters put themselves on the frontlines of traumatic situations as part of their daily duties.
Years in the field responding to shootings, burn victims and other high-stress incidents can take a heavy toll on their physical and mental health.
That is why the Steamboat Springs Police Department is implementing new wellness initiatives, including a peer support program inspired by Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue, to keep officers healthy and safe.
This comes as recent research shows emergency responders suffer higher rates of heart disease and suicide than people in other professions.
A 2013 study published by the National Institutes of Health found the average life expectancy of a police officer to be 57, almost 22 years younger than the general population.
As Steamboat Police Chief Cory Christensen explained, police work is often not conducive to a healthy lifestyle for officers.
“The world is stressful for them, whether it’s dealing with a domestic violence situation to neighbor problems to someone upset about parking,” he said.
Officers can go from sitting in their patrol cars to running down a suspect in a matter of seconds, which sends a surge of adrenaline through their body. In a 12-hour shift, they can endure multiple, rollercoaster rounds of stress, no-stress situations.
“That has a negative effect on their heart health,” Christensen said.
Part of the new initiative includes detecting health problems before they get worse. A city committee aimed at promoting wellness recently conducted cardiovascular screenings for employees, including police officers.
“I’m happy to say my risk for heart disease is really low,” Christensen said.
Emergency work also takes a toll on one’s mental health. Police officers in smaller departments commit suicide at a rate four times the national average, according to a 2012 study published by the National Institutes of Health.
The study listed a lack of mental health assistance as one of the primary reasons for the higher suicide rate, something Christensen has noticed locally.
“We haven’t always done a great job in dealing with the aftermath of events that occur in this community with our officers,” he said.
A new peer support program aims to change that. Three officers have already received training to help their colleagues work through traumatic situations.
It draws inspiration from a program the Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue has offered its firefighters for the past two years, according to Deputy Fire Chief Chuck Cerasoli. This year, the city budgeted $1,500 to provide additional wellness services to firefighters, City Manager Gary Suiter said.
Like police officers, firefighters deal with high-stress incidents, including a school bus driver who suddenly went into cardiac arrest with students on board in March.
“No matter how tough you think you are, the continuous calls you get over your career is a slow drip of traumatic events in your life,” Cerasoli said. “At some point, whether you’re a firefighter or not, we can all benefit from talking with someone.”
To make any mental health program effective, emergency responders have to overcome some stigmas around seeking treatment. It is their job to stay strong in the face of danger, and breaking down those walls can be difficult.
“There can be this fear that if you show weakness, somehow you’re going to lose your job, get your gun taken away or be put on the desk,” Christensen said.
That is why the officers and firefighters trained in peer support keep conversations with their colleagues confidential. It serves as a safe space where emergency responders can do some mental housekeeping and seek more professional help if necessary.
By normalizing conversations about mental health, Christensen hopes officers will feel more comfortable addressing what haunts them before it leads to more serious problems.
“We still have to show up to calls, and we have to do our job,” he said. “But when the job bothers them, I need them to feel comfortable to go to somebody.”