Anchorage police and fire receive new mental health services

Grants are designed to improve overall well-being of Anchorage’s first responders
New city grants are designed to improve overall well-being of Anchorage’s first responders
Published: Jun. 27, 2023 at 6:19 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The Anchorage police and fire departments are investing in the mental health of their workers after the city has secured hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant money to focus on the well-being of first responders.

Both firefighters and police officers are often exposed to trauma. Over time, the stress can take a toll on first responders. Some take to drugs or alcohol, or worse, take their own lives.

That’s why officials are stepping up by stepping in before it’s too late.

“Everything a police officer does is trauma,” Senior Patrol Officer Angie Salvato said. “Whether they are experiencing a horrific car crash, doing CPR, going to a death investigation or even hearing about someone else’s trauma.”

First responders have said that they witness trauma on a daily basis. Admitting to having trouble dealing with the issue has traditionally been tough.

“You just did not talk about it; you stuffed it into a sack and slung it over your shoulder,” Anchorage Senior Fire Captain Dein Bruce said. “As we all know, that sack gets filled up, it gets very heavy.”

Bruce says that heaviness takes a toll on first responders and bottling it up just makes it worse.

“Firefighters and first responders and even military folks were self-medicating with — through either alcohol or illegal substances — which would cause a tailspin,” Bruce said.

Both the police and fire departments in Anchorage have volunteer peer supporters who help fellow workers with stressful job-related traumas and taxing life events.

Now, the fire department has partnered with Soldier’s Heart, a Southcentral Foundation program for professional support. They also have a program called Center of Excellence in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, where they send firefighters in need of additional help.

“It’s a rehab center, it’s for trauma — it’s for all these things and they understand us as a culture,” Bruce said.

“To maintain mental health and wellness, physical health is a very important part of that,” AFD Assistant Fire Chief Alex Boyd said.

The department also received a grant that’s focused on health and wellness. With over 20 workers currently out on long-term leave due to injuries and physical problems, Boyd says it’s an important step forward.

As part of the grant, the fire department has contracted with Duro Health, which has an extensive background working for the United States Department of Defense, U.S. Military Special Forces, fire, police, and other emergency responders.

“What this grant allows us to do is bring in specialists to help bring those folks back,” Boyd said.

“Police have a very stressful job,” Salvato added.

The Anchorage Police Department received a Department of Justice grant for $122,000 to focus on mental health. It’s doing this by hiring a firm from the Lower 48 that specializes in police psychology.

“If we have an officer-involved shooting, we can get that person to be hooked into a clinician right away,” Salvato said.

Prior to the program, the department was limited in what it could offer its officers.

“We, of course, had eight free visits a year to go to a counselor and things like that,” Salvato said. “But there still was a stigma surrounding getting help, talking to someone, and I think this is going to really help by reducing that stigma.”

She said the funding will help officers to focus on the job of being well — both on and off the clock.

“The more healthy our police officers are, the better service they’ll provide for the community,” Salvato said.

“You know, if you can get out ahead of the curve and talk to people before there’s a problem, they’re going to be a lot better off,” Bruce said.

The firefighters’ grant is awarded for two years, and the police grant lasts for one year, but both can potentially be renewed.

Next month, the police department will begin working with the psychology firm. The fire department has health and wellness coaches and a licensed physical therapist currently working onsite at the department’s training center.