South King County fire chiefs developing behavioral health program

11 agencies are working to address mental health concerns at work and at home.

With firefighters retiring early, departments losing members, members experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder and more, South King County fire chiefs decided in March 2022 to meet and find a solution to the escalating mental health crisis in firefighting.

The nature of calls has changed in recent years, said Chuck DeSmith, deputy chief of emergency medical services and safety for Renton Regional Fire Authority. First responders now frequently respond to cases such as children involved in shootings and suicides.

“When I started, we just said suck it up. We could put on a mask at work, but there would be problems at home,” DeSmith said.

When firefighters don’t receive mental health aid for problems at work, issues like alcoholism, relationships falling apart, and poor well-being manifest at home, DeSmith said. They quickly realized with mental health challenges, a band-aid solution wouldn’t suffice.

Eleven fire agencies from South King County are currently in the process of creating a behavioral health unit for its crews, including Enumclaw, King County Fire District 2, Mountain View, the Port of Seattle, Puget Sound, Renton, Skyway, South King Fire and Rescue, South King Medic One, Vashon and the Valley Regional Fire Authority.

The behavioral health unit the fire chiefs create, they hope, will serve as a template for behavioral health units for firefighting departments nationwide in need of a better system to serve employee mental health.

Specifics and details regarding what the behavioral health unit will look like and how it will operate are sparse as it is in its early stages.

The agencies have hired a consultant, Kalli Ortega, to guide them through navigating insurance companies, labor and industry processes and designing the program.

Ortega said the project interested her as the South King County agencies have identified a need and interest in building something that doesn’t currently exist and is sustainable and scalable. The open-source nature of the project will allow other first-response organizations to reiterate upon the framework they create in the future, Ortega said.

Ortega sat down with all 11 agencies to discuss the needs and concerns of the departments, said DeSmith.

“The most important thing that Kalli Ortega did is ask me, as one of the chiefs, ‘What problem are you trying to solve?’” DeSmith said.

As the departments develop a strategic plan, they will also attempt to secure grant funding for the program.

Renton Regional Fire Authority chief Steve Heitman spoke regarding the project at the March Public Safety Committee meeting.

“I’m very excited about that. We think that will definitely fill in a need,” Heitman said.

When firefighters return from fires, they decontaminate physically from carcinogenic material and contaminants, DeSmith said.

But, he asked: “Are we doing a good mental decontamination?”