Lessons Learned from the FirstNet® Health and Wellness Coalition

By Anna Fitch Courie

There is a mental health crisis facing our nation’s first responder community. The rates of PTSD, depression, and anxiety among public safety personnel far exceed the rates of the general population. By its very nature, emergency response is stressful. And there are real mental health impacts to those who serve our communities.

For public safety, few things are more important than the lives of first responders and the people they serve. We understand the service they provide our communities comes with personal sacrifice. That’s why FirstNet established a Health and Wellness Program in May 2020 to address the wellness problems facing public safety.

A key component of this commitment is establishing the FirstNet Health & Wellness Coalition. The Coalition integrates responder, community, industry, and academic capabilities to support the holistic health, wellness, and readiness of America’s first responders. This includes the National Volunteer Fire Council as a standing member. And the Coalition serves as the backbone to everything we do to support the health and wellbeing of first responders.

Working Together

“To make change, public safety needs to come together at the kitchen table,” stated Chief Norvin Collins, board member with the International Association of Fire Chiefs. “Great things happen at the kitchen table, and together, we can be a powerful force for wellness among first responders.”

That’s what the FirstNet Health and Wellness Coalition does. We come together to assess the data on first responder health and wellness, identify priorities through a comprehensive needs assessment, focus those priorities into strategic efforts, and share best practices and lessons learned.

And leadership at all levels of public safety organizations share my passion for health and wellness. Chiefs and leaders across law enforcement, fire, EMS, dispatch, corrections, emergency management, and healthcare are passionate about taking action and creating systems for change. Together, we’ve identified leadership matters. Responders have said they want to see leadership engaged in wellness efforts, not just talk about it.i

Family members also have said they want to be involved in the discussion. They’re often the first to see signs of deterioration in their responder, and they’re not sure where to turn or whether the department will support them.

Robyn Mikel lost her firefighter husband to suicide.  She challenged the coalition to take action by asking, “What are you afraid of?”

We’ve learned stigma is a real thing. And we’ve started having those hard conversations about suicide, depression, post-traumatic stress, access to health care, and others, because we learned that to make change, we have to be the first ones to talk about the problems facing public safety.

Celebrating the Wins

We’ve also learned to celebrate the wins. Responders want to be involved in their health and wellness. They care about their mental health as much as their physical health, and they like to see opportunities for wellness in their local departments.

The culture is changing. We have a lot of work to do, but we’re headed in the right direction.

Finally, we’ve learned there are awesome organizations working to support responders, including volunteer firefighters. We’re committed to supporting their efforts. Here’s a snapshot of some of the actions we’re taking to effect change:

  • In June 2021, we launched the FirstNet ROG the Dog program through a partnership with Global Medical Response. The animal-assisted therapy program consists of a group of trained Labradoodles specializing in helping first responders on the front lines.
  • We collaborated with Boulder Crest Institute and its first responder initiative to develop and deliver transformative post-traumatic growth-based training programs to enhance the well-being of first responders.
  • We’re supporting O2X Human Performance to bring health, wellness, and physical performance training workshops to first responders.
  • We’re supporting Red H.E.L.P. and First H.E.L.P., both part of an organization committed to addressing suicide prevention in the fire service and other public safety organizations and supporting families of first responders who lost their lives to suicide.
  • The National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians has been a key member of the FirstNet Health and Wellness Coalition as an advocate for mental health and wellness. We’ve supported the development of the association’s Emotional Resiliency Officer training program and collaborated with them to produce a video on Responding With Resilience: Mental Wellness in EMS.
  • In September 2021, we collaborated with The Quell Foundation, which provides resources to help first responders struggling with mental health, to help produce their documentary on mental health in public safety: “Lift the Mask: First Responders Sound the Alarm.”
  • In 2020, we launched a collaboration with All Clear Foundation to help increase access to education, resources, and support for first responders struggling with health and wellness issues. With the ResponderRel8 application and the foundation’s Responder Strong training, we’re providing resources to public safety.

Some resources may seem cost- and time-prohibitive for volunteer fire departments. But many will work with your departments to ensure they meet your needs. Our sponsorship of the Lighthouse Health and Wellness app ensures volunteer fire departments can get a free wellness application, putting health and wellness resources at their fingertips.

Being There

We’ve learned through our efforts together that “Being There” matters. And the public safety community has grown together through a sense of caring about the lives of first responders.

Dr. Anna Fitch Courie, director of responder wellness, FirstNet Program at AT&T, is a nurse, Army wife, former university faculty, and author. Dr. Courie has worked for over 20 years in the health care profession including bone marrow transplant, intensive care, public health, and health promotion practice. She holds a bachelor’s in nursing from Clemson University; a master’s in nursing education from the University of Wyoming; and a doctor of nursing practice degree from Ohio State University. Dr. Courie’s area of expertise is integration of public health strategy across disparate organizations to achieve health improvement goals.

FirstNet and the FirstNet logo are registered trademarks and service marks of the First Responder Network Authority. All other marks are the property of their respective owners.

iCourie, A. (2021). FirstNet First Responder Needs Assessment Report. Dallas, TX.