American Medical Response (AMR), the largest private ambulance company in the country, has undertaken a new project to benefit its employees. Throughout the last year, it has worked with Connecticut-based organization K9 First Responders (K9FR) to provide AMR employees with a support system unlike any other.
K9FR is a critical incident mental health support organization that uses specially trained dog teams to provide aid and comfort to people who experience the psychological unrest that can follow a traumatic event. Each team consists of a handler and a dog trained to work together as an all-hazards psychological trauma response team. At the scene of an event, K9FR works to bridge the gap between psychological damage and the connection to mental health services—a “mental health taxi,” as Brad Cole, executive director at K9FR, calls the organization.
As a concept, K9FR saw its start in 2012 following the Sandy Hook shootings. That day, Cole was volunteering with his dog Spartacus at Yale-New Haven Hospital in Connecticut. He still volunteers at the hospital, where he and Spartacus visit with patients, families and staff, simply to provide them with comfort and a distraction from their surroundings. Upon receiving news of the shootings that day, Cole realized he and Spartacus could provide that same sense of comfort to victims and families at Sandy Hook.
In hopes of mending a hurting community, he introduced himself to members of the Connecticut Emergency Mobile Psychiatric Services, a mobile crisis-intervention resource for kids funded by the state’s Department of Children and Families. He explained his background and the role Spartacus played at Yale-New Haven. He then offered their assistance, upon which they were invited to join the crisis counseling teams for the next 12 days.
The initial response to the presence of Cole and Spartacus was overwhelmingly positive. When they arrived at the scene, lines of people waited to be with them, so Cole called Yale-New Haven and asked more teams to join him. Within three hours, there were eight dogs at the scene, and within 72 hours, 100 dogs were there to provide love and comfort to people in the community. It was during that time that the concept of using dogs as first responders in the face of tragedy was born, and in September 2014 K9FR was officially recognized as a nonprofit organization.
Although K9FR never self-deploys, its teams act as first responders and are available to provide support whenever the phone rings. To prepare both the dogs and handlers for what they will experience during a typical deployment, K9FR provides teams with extensive training. Cole says the dogs and handlers are trained in a similar fashion to volunteer EMS or firefighters.
Helping the Helpers
Along with acting as first responders to the public, K9FR also provides assistance to fellow first responders who experience traumatic events. AMR is one organization that utilizes K9FR to manage first responder stress.
“Having the dogs there during that time before somebody can get formal mental or psychiatric help is a huge benefit to the employee,” says Patrick Pickering, AMR’s manager of clinical and education services for Connecticut and Virginia.
Pickering discovered K9FR when he was fire chief at West Shore Fire District in West Haven, CT. He introduced K9FR to his department after learning more about it from Charlotte’s Litter, a program that advocates the use of therapy and comfort dogs. He decided to utilize K9FR for members of the fire department, who were invited to call and request assistance any time they thought they, or a scene, were in need of it.
Although Pickering has since moved on to AMR, he still wants to utilize the services of K9FR. Since AMR employees can be subject to a harsh workplace environment, he thinks the dogs will help them manage stress and aid in the decompression process. So far the program is offered to AMR’s Connecticut-based employees through their employee assistance program and human resources.
Pickering says AMR will request assistance from K9FR any time an employee feels the interaction would benefit them, or any time a boss thinks their assistance is needed for employees at a scene.
K9FR has had 25 deployments to date, working with both the public and private individuals. Although its initial response area is in Southern New England, Cole says they have plans to expand the model to other areas.
The success of the organization is something Cole credits to the natural bond that happens between humans and animals. “The dogs don’t judge. They show care and comfort, and each person is able to internalize what the dogs’ actions mean,” he says. “Sometimes it’s just the connection of a furry dog that is there just for them to rub... They’re not asking them anything. They’re just showing them love.”