5 ways a Texas city ensures responders are mentally and physically fit from recruits to retirees
The Irving Police Department and Irving Fire Department combined forces to offer EMDR therapy, an employee health clinic, wellness incentives and much more
In the City of Irving, Texas, the Irving Police Department (IPD) and Irving Fire Department (IFD) recognized the unique mental health and wellness needs of their first responders and created a program to meet those needs head-on. The Public Safety Wellness Unit (PSWU) is a full-time wellness unit that consists of a licensed psychologist and two clinicians.
Before it became the PSWU, IPD had a peer support program that was started in 2016 after one of their officers died by suicide. In 2019, the program was expanded to include IFD members, before eventually evolving into the PSWU. Today, the unit runs as a separate division under the city manager’s office.
In September 2023, the IPD and IFD were recognized by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF) as this year’s Destination Zero winner of its comprehensive wellness category. Destination Zero is a program aimed at improving the health and safety of law enforcement officers across the country. This year, five police departments, that are committed to increasing officer wellness and reducing line-of-duty deaths or injuries, were presented awards during Police Weekend.
Below, we break down how the IPD and IFD are ensuring their responders are mentally fit from recruits to retirees.
1. Recognition and intervention of responders at risk of developing mental health conditions
Starting in the academy, recruits are educated and trained about unhealthy response behaviors and how those behaviors can turn into potential mental health conditions related to first responder-specific job stressors. However, recruits and first responders aren’t solely responsible for ensuring they respond appropriately to an issue that’s affecting their mental health.
Supervisors also receive mandatory training to learn the signs and symptoms of a first responder in crisis. With their training, they’re able to respond with not only the appropriate resources to help a responder in need but also assist in their recovery and ongoing resiliency. In addition to recruit and supervisor training, dispatchers are provided psychoeducational training by the unit’s clinicians on a routine basis. First responder families are also included in ongoing training, such as vicarious trauma, self-care, financial management and emotional survival.
The unit’s mental health services are available 24/7 to provide early crisis intervention, as well as immediate attention following a critical incident. The unit’s psychologist, Dr. Mildred Betancourt, coordinates Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) interventions, develops training, and is a liaison between police and fire peer support groups.
2. The PSWU offers Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, as well as biofeedback/neurofeedback and Yoga for First Responders
EMDR is a type of therapy that combines eye movements – or bilateral stimulation in the form of tapping – and guided instructions to help a responder reprocess memories from a traumatic event.
After reprocessing the memory, the responder can remember the event more clearly and move away from reliving it due to post-traumatic stress. Once the responder can reprocess what they remember, the brain can then repair the mental injury, allowing the strong feelings associated with the memory to become more manageable. The PSWU has built EMDR therapy into their CISM debriefing protocols.
Biofeedback can help responders in controlling bodily functions, such as their heart rate and respiration. During biofeedback, a responder is connected to electrical sensors, which help them receive information about their body’s responses. In response, neurofeedback helps the brain to self-regulate – addressing the trauma at its source.
Finally, members of the IPD and IFD can utilize Yoga for First Responders, a program that uses yoga to help responders process stress and build resilience.
3. Implementation of “Let’s Talk About It": A suicide prevention campaign
“Let’s Talk About It” is an internal suicide awareness and prevention campaign.
Before the establishment of the IPD and IFD’s peer support unit, the IPD lost four officers to suicide in the span of 10 years. Since the start of the program in 2016, IPD has intervened with 26 individuals who expressed suicidal ideations. All 26 received the help they needed and were able to successfully return to work.
The program informs and educates departments, administrators, spouses and family members on prevention, signs and symptoms, resources and how to help someone at risk of suicide.
4. The iWIN program, the city’s physical fitness program, is offered to all employees
iWIN was designed to motivate employees to live healthier lifestyles. And what better way to motivate employees than with a 22,772-square-foot training facility that’s equipped with free weights, as well as a full-size gym with various workout equipment. Responders can work out while on duty but are required to have their radios turned on in the event of a callout.
The program is part of the city’s health incentive program. For example, employees who earned 400 wellness points from Oct. 1, 2022, through Sept. 8, 2023, received a monthly financial incentive of $130 starting Oct. 2023.
5. The opening of a clinic available to active and retired first responders
In 2018, Irving opened an employee health clinic after coming to an agreement between the city and CareATC. The clinic is available to employees and retirees, as well as their spouses and dependents. However, to attend the clinic, an individual must be enrolled in one of the city’s health insurance plans. According to CareATC’s website, the clinic provides low or no-cost medical care, including primary care visits, prescription management and lab tests. Additionally, members will not have copays or deductibles.
Funding EMS behavioral health programs
Results from the 2023 EMS Trend Survey identify an urgent need for increased mental health support