The newest part-time employees at Gaston Emergency Medical Services walk on four legs and work for treats.
Bijou, her son Knox, and a Danish import named Macy Mae serve as the first responders' therapy dogs. Their presence was the idea of Maj. Jessica Ross, who reflected on tough times at the department and her past career as a certified nursing assistant for a way to help her co-workers.
"The last couple years we've had some traumatic events," Ross said. "Mental health in tragic events, first responders are more suicidal, we're having more mental health problems. We actually lost one of our own last year to suicide. I was thinking, 'What we could do to help the situation?' When I was younger, I worked with oncology patients. Therapy dogs came in to the hospital and worked with patients. Their whole outlook changed, and I thought first responders would benefit from therapy dogs."
Ross asked for help from Courtney Johnson, an EMT at GEMS and a breeder of Great Danes for more than 20 years.
Johnson tested her dogs through Therapy Dogs International, and qualified herself and Ross to serve as the animals' handlers. The dogs recently started being introduced to their co-workers, and attended a peer support group hosted by the Gaston County Firefighters Association earlier this month.
The animals are among the biggest dog breeds, and Knox weighs close to 200 pounds. But despite their stature, the dogs are nothing but friendly, Johnson said.
"The innateness of this particular breed is they're very people-oriented," she said. "It's a very family-oriented dog. Knox can be very intimidating but one of his favorite groups of people are newborns, little small babies, he just loves them."
The nature of a paramedic's job means any call could be traumatic. The staff worked closely with CaroMont Regional Medical Center nurse Amanda Self and her sister-in-law, Gaston County Sheriff's Cpl. Katelyn Self. The two sisters-in-law were killed when a car drove into a Bessemer City restaurant last year, and GEMS paramedics had to arrive to the scene.
"We worked with them everyday," Ross said. "They were like family."
A paramedic's duties include responding to what could be any number of traumatic events, something Johnson refers to as a "bad call," finishing up and then responding to another call, which can be equally or more stressful.
Such a lifestyle takes its toll, Johnson said.
"You don't necessarily get the opportunity all the time to really decompress from that call," said Johnson, a GEMS employee for the past 1 1/2 years. "There are days where one call to the next could be a cardiac arrest to a stroke to a major vehicle collision back to back to back and you're just coping to go to the next call."
Johnson plans for the dogs to be a part of the critical incident debriefing process for GEMS and other county organizations. She wants to train one of her own dogs to become a therapy dog in the future so that paramedics who enjoy smaller breeds have an option, as well.
The benefits the animals provide are easily seen and felt, according to Johnson, who added that the dogs "don't judge" and are there for support in any situation.
"You can see it just when I walk up the hill and if somebody is on the truck, you can see them get off the truck and when they see the dogs their total body language changes," she said. "It's an opportunity for a change of pace."
Macy Mae, 2, got her name from Johnson's husband, who wanted to "bring a little Southern to a Danish dog." Bijou, 10, means jewel in French and Knox, 6, earned his name from being an "obnoxious puppy," Johnson said.
The animals have already started to recognize front desk and other employees they've seen on a regular basis.
"We've seen a big impact," Ross said.