In the past year, the Los Angeles Fire Department has hired over 250 new firefighters, and promoted close to 150 officers. This influx of new personnel is untrained in the topics of behavioral health, and unable to provide competent peer support services to fellow LAFD members. What’s more, the LAFD Behavioral Health Program, which is HIPPA compliant, currently consists of one fire psychologist to support over 3600 sworn and civilian members. As a result, LAFD members – the individuals we depend on to keep us safe – are at risk for behavioral health issues.
One individual, Dr. Kristen Wheldon, is doing everything she can to care for the first responders who care for us. Hired in 2016, Dr. Wheldon joined the LAFD with a wide array of professional experience – including the study of combat veterans and work with the inmate-patient population at the California Department of Corrections – that has proved to be a valuable asset to the Behavioral Health Program.
Since joining the department more than a year ago, Dr. Wheldon’s primary focus has been to build and oversee the LAFD Peer Support Team. Although her goal is to grow Peer Support to 100 members, currently the team consists of only thirty individuals. Coming from all levels of the department, both sworn and civilian, on the job and retired, these members have undergone 40 hours of training on a variety of behavioral health topics. They also participate in quarterly trainings and monthly meetings to stay up-to-date.
The Peer Support Team is essential to the mental health of the LAFD, as Los Angeles has a shortage of psychologists competent in fire service culture. This puts the pressure on Peer Support – they are responsible for the emotional wellbeing of their brothers and sisters on the job. Every day, firefighters and paramedics are confronted with traumatic situations; they help people on the worst days of their lives. What’s more, the LAFD family has experienced great loss of their own this past year, including fatality fires, training accidents, and suicides.
Unfortunately, Peer Support and other behavioral health services have not grown with department demands – instead they have diminished. While Peer Support Team members are trained in topics such as critical incident response, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicide prevention, and so forth, Dr. Wheldon is solely responsible for providing direct psychological services to department members and their families. What’s more, she relies on personal resources to do her job.
Fortunately, this fall Dr. Wheldon will be joined by two doctoral students to assist in operating the LAFD Behavioral Health Program. Volunteering 20 hours a week for one year, these students will work on the new “train the trainer cadre,” a group that will supplement the Peer Support Team by providing behavioral health training in fire stations throughout the city. An educator with experience serving as a University Lecturer for Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, and an instructor for Saddleback and Irvine Valley Colleges, Dr. Wheldon hopes that this program will equip department members with the tools to train others in peer support methods. A specialist in both the short-term and long-term effects of trauma exposure, Dr. Wheldon believes that resiliency begins with awareness, education, and proactive coping mechanisms.
After speaking with Dr. Wheldon, it is clear that she has a plan for the future of the LAFD Behavioral Health Program. The LAFD expects to hire a second psychologist at the start of the new year, but for now, resources are tight and Dr. Wheldon needs community support. Now more than ever, we must care for the first responders who care for us.