St. Vincent's HealthCare offers formation training to first responders

December 15, 2016

Lt. Justin Cone considers himself lucky. After more than a decade as a firefighter and paramedic with Clay County Fire Rescue in Florida, Cone has yet to respond to an incident traumatic enough to warrant a Critical Incident Stress Debriefing, an emergency psychological protocol for first responders that follows mass shootings, natural disasters or catastrophic loss of life.

(Courtesy of Clay County)

"But this job isn't for everybody," he said. "Some of the things you see and do every day really get to you and would shake up most people. So we need to find a way to keep from bottling it up or letting it tear us apart."

According to the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance, 124 firefighters and paramedics committed suicide in 2015. Yet time for reflection is rare. Even when waiting for a call, Cone said, first responders are surrounded at the station by "all sorts of distractions. Someone walks in wanting a blood pressure check, or a school group shows up for a tour. The phone's always ringing, and the radio's going off."

St. Vincent's HealthCare in nearby Jacksonville, Fla., wanted to help. So, the health system, which is part of Ascension, has started a pilot program for first responders called In-Venture. Rather than take a crisis-response approach, the program is based on Ascension's formation program and fosters self-reflection.

"Ascension provides formation at all levels of the organization and does it very well," said Blain Claypool, president of acute care at St. Vincent's. "But formation is also a gift that we can give to our community."

Claypool provided the seeds for the idea nearly two years ago, after attending formation training with other executives from Ascension. He wanted to build upon Ascension's commitment to formation and worked with Deacon Steve Arnold, manager of mission integration, to develop a program for middle managers.

"Then we asked ourselves how we could continue to build on the formation concept and where we could take it," Claypool said. "We talked about the challenges of the first responders and their typical personality: young men and women, very outgoing, adventure seekers. They face the front lines of a lot of the hardest situations that health care providers get put in. Someone has to take care of them."

Arnold came up with the name In-Venture, playing off the sense of inventiveness and adventure innate to first responders. The name also harkens, he said, "to the inner adventure, looking to the soul." The program uses the image of concentric circles to drive home that the inner, spiritual life affects not only the first responder but also his or her relationship with family, co-workers and the community. Arnold emphasized that he designed the daylong session not as a presentation or as an employee assistance program or a response to a crisis but "as something proactive, an invitation to first responders to develop their reflective side."

Arnold and Claypool decided to start the program with first responders in Clay County, who service St. Vincent's 106-bed hospital about 25 miles southwest of Jacksonville. They previewed the program for the department chiefs, "But we were very specific that this program wasn't for them," Claypool said. "We really wanted first responders to feel that this is a safe environment."

The chiefs enthusiastically recommended it.

"It is very easy to get caught up in the day-to-day hectic life we live and really lose the reality of how that life affects us, not to mention those around us. … Different people will gain strength in different areas," David Motes, deputy chief of operations for Clay County Fire Rescue, wrote in an email to his department. "Why St Vincent's? They as an organization not only found the benefit to themselves and their individuals, but in doing so, thought enough of us that they wanted to give it to the first responders as their way of supporting the community."

First responders could attend either off-duty or as part of their work day. The first session, held in February, attracted 21 first responders. It opened with a contest to build and fly paper airplanes.

"That broke the ice really quickly and played to their fun-loving, competitive nature," Arnold said.

The group spent the rest of the session mulling reflective questions, both as a group and as individuals. Among the topics was how an individual recharges emotionally and spiritually and how spirituality influences the individual's work.

"We asked, 'Where is your mountain, where is your soul-feeding place?'" Arnold said. "We allowed what was presented to sink into the heart and let them wrestle with it there."

When the program was repeated the next day, several who attended the first day came back. Since then, about 30 percent of the first responders in Clay County have attended at least one of the three sessions.

"It was surprising to show up for that first program and see so many of your colleagues," Cone said. "It makes you feel like you're not alone. It also made me feel like keeping things bottled up was becoming a thing of the past. That other people were interested in figuring out what drives us is a positive sign for the program and first responders. It's kind of starting to take off."

Arnold said feedback from Alan Blocker, St. Vincent's EMS liaison, indicated that first responders who have attended wanted follow-up sessions. Because the program is relatively new, though, Arnold said he was still plotting its next steps. Options include follow-up with first responders in Clay County or expanding to first responders serving St. Vincent's two larger medical centers in Jacksonville.

The program already has caught the attention of other Ascension members, and Claypool has explored merging In-Venture with a pilot pastoral care program for EMS responders at St. Vincent's Medical Center, an Ascension member in Bridgeport, Conn.

"They're definitely going in the right direction, and they're good at what they're doing," Cone said. "I'm very interested in seeing how the program evolves."


Copyright © 2016 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2016 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.