SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 News) – Every first responder will see a trauma that stays with them throughout their career. The weight of the call can take a huge emotional toll with few places to turn for help.
Roy City Advance EMT Stephanie Fischer said, “You don’t want to put that weight on other people or your family, or anybody else, and burden anybody with your thoughts, and sadness, and feelings.”
Most first responders have access to an Employee Assistance Program or the Utah Critical Incident Stress Management Team to deal with tough traumatic calls.
“There was a couple calls that I was just continually reliving for whatever reason, and every time I would fall asleep, get into a good sleep, you know there I was again,” said Roy City Firefighter Dave Ermer.
Work-related nightmares haunted Ermer for years. Not to mention the memories from his time serving our country in the Navy.
But, it was a personal tragedy that turned Ermers world upside down.
“My brother who had returned from Iraq shortly before that he had committed suicide,” he said.
Ermer says he would often turn against the people he loved the most do to the immense emotional strain.
“My kids are my life, my wife is you know my best friend, and I was angry all the time at people I loved the most. And, that was the worst part,” he told ABC4’s Jason Nguyen.
What Dave didn’t know was his wife signed him up for a shelter dog named Able through 4 Paws 4 Patriots – Utah. It’s an organization that pairs veterans and first responders with rescue dogs who become service animals.
“We look at it as saving two lives,” says 4 Paws 4 Patriots founder James Mann. “There is not a difference. They go through a lot of the same things veterans do.”
The dogs are trained to help their new partners cope with mental health issues like anger, nightmares or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Mann said, “It is an invisible wound and as someone who deals with post-traumatic stress myself, it can be very debilitating.”
The training comes in three courses. Both the dogs and owners have to pass each course to complete the program.
During this training both Dave and his family realized the value of man’s best friend.
“He immediately started breaking me of some of the bad habits I had, which was my nightmares, some anxiety issues I didn’t even know I had,” said Ermer.
This unique form of therapy extends beyond the borders of Roy City. Firefighters in Ogden City are benefitting from canine companions.
“We don’t realize that we are doing group therapy because we are all thinking we are in the room training dogs, but what is really happening is we are talking about each other’s personal experiences, sharing personal experiences,” said Ogden City Fire Department’s Captain Targee Williams.
Capt. Williams noticed a change in attitude within the department when he brought his dog Copper around.
“We’ve had a firefighter suicide six-years ago at our department and if we can prevent that from ever happening at our department ever again, it’s worth every single minute, every single hour that we spend doing the work with peer support and Copper,” said Capt. Williams.
On Thursday, ABC4 News was told the program at Ogden City Fire Department is going so well it was expanded to Ogden City police through a Peer Support Partnership Program.
In Roy, the dogs are also having a positive impact.
Ermer said, “I started bringing him here just recently after doing our podcast with you.”
Both Ermer and Capt. Williams appeared on Nguyening with Dogs in September to talk about 4 Paws 4 Patriots – Utah and how it changed their lives.
“To be able to see a dog and be able to have a little bit of their own time to be able to kind of focus on something different for a moment seems to be helping,” said Chief Jeff Comeau with the Roy City Fire Department.
The positive impact is not just with moral the Chief says his paramedics and firefighters are more mentally prepared because of it.
“We really weren’t sure what to expect out of it but everything we’ve seen has been extremely positive,” said Chief Comeau.
Fischer added, “They still love you. They don’t hold grudges. They suck that sadness out of you and absorb it.”
Word has spread in the first responder community about the canine companions and in Weber County, the dogs are creating a new line of defense against mental health for first responders.
Chief Comeau said, “The dogs are here.”