firefighter with soot on face

ResponderStrong Helps Firefighters Succeed and Thrive

It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has already had a significant impact on the nation’s mental health. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll indicates that worry or stress related to COVID-19 has caused fifty-six percent of U.S. adults to experience negative mental health effects. Among health care workers, that statistic jumps to sixty-four percent.

While identical corresponding data is not yet available for first responders, pre-pandemic data indicates that they are already at higher risk of stress, post-traumatic stress injury (PTSI), depression, substance use, and suicide ideation or attempts due to the trauma often experienced on the job.

These figures only underscore the persistent need for effective, accessible mental health support for first responders. In May, we spoke to Rhonda Kelly – National Director of Health, Wellness and Resiliency for Global Medical Response and founding Director of ResponderStrong – about some mental health resources available to fire, ambulance, and health districts through ResponderStrong.

A Wealth of Experience

Rhonda has first-hand knowledge of the issues facing today’s first responders. She started her career as an expanded-practice emergency medical technician working on icebreakers in the Antarctic and proceeded to work as an EMT for rural ambulance services before transitioning to a Firefighter/Paramedic position at Aurora Fire – a position she held for seventeen years. During that time, she also earned her RN designation and worked part-time as an Emergency Department and Psych Emergency Department nurse for Centura Health.

During her last few years at Aurora Fire, Rhonda served as the Health and Safety Officer, developing physical fitness, nutrition, wellness, injury prevention, crisis response, and mental wellness programs for fellow first responders.

In 2016, pursuing a deep interest in what she saw as the unaddressed mental health impacts of emergency response work, she founded ResponderStrong, a collaboration between emergency responders and the National Mental Health Innovation Center at the University of Colorado Anschutz.

What is ResponderStrong?

ResponderStrong’s mission is to build better mental health supports for first responders and their families. The organization’s novel approach is different from many others in that it is driven by emergency responders from various branches: law enforcement, fire, EMS and dispatch. As Rhonda puts it, “the answer is to stop working in isolation – to normalize these issues and equip first responders with the tools they need.”

ResponderStrong’s toolkit includes a searchable database of professional assistance (from specialized clinicians and facilities to wellness retreats and aftercare support), educational resources, research, and self-help surveys. But their focus on active collaboration ensures that their positive impact reaches beyond the features of the website.

As one example, Rhonda highlights “Responding to Your Relationship,” an eight-hour grant-funded workshop for first responders and their families, hosted jointly with The Center for Relationship Education in Denver.

Among other things, the workshop covers how first responders and their loved ones can understand and treat post-shift parasympathetic backlash, a natural and common reaction to high-stress situations that causes the first responder to experience profound exhaustion and symptoms of shock.

Without the proper education, parasympathetic backlash can be mistaken for apathy, disinterest, or lack of care, putting undue pressure on a first responder’s most important personal relationships.

ResponderStrong also conducts train-the-trainer events, equipping department representatives to bring valuable training back to their colleagues. “We want to empower individual agencies,” Rhonda notes.

New Technology

For Rhonda, perhaps the most exciting resource at ResponderStrong is the comprehensive new mobile-friendly wellness site they have developed with a proprietary platform from Cactus Communications.

The immersive experience allows users to explore opportunities for growth across three central domains: SUCCEED (career and occupational advancement), THRIVE (mental and physical wellness), and MATTER (purpose, meaning, and spirituality).

Content is tailored to each specific user and is interspersed with “reality checks,” brief self-assessments that users can complete to set goals or identify needs. On the back end, there is a robust analytics program that allows the experts at ResponderStrong to identify gaps in resources and add content that matters to first responders.

Crisis capacity is built in, with pop-ups suggesting critical resources based on user activity. But the platform also addresses day-to-day wellness maintenance. “We’re really focused on the whole human behind the badge, behind the uniform,” Rhonda says.

A Valuable Resource amid COVID-19

Software like this could not come at a better time. As Rhonda explains, COVID-19 “has been amplifying underlying issues that were already present” for first responders. With its broad array of resources, easy navigation, and communication methods that are both appealing and trustworthy, the ResponderStrong site lends itself to user engagement.

COVID-19-specific resources are woven into the other digital content to keep material up-to-date and applicable. And while the wellness site focuses on ResponderStrong’s central audience of first responders, it can also be useful for adjacent occupations that don’t typically fall under the same umbrella, such as coroner personnel, victim advocates, and more.

But most importantly, it’s readily accessible. Rhonda, who has been working with FEMA responders during the pandemic, indicates that one of the biggest benefits of the wellness tool is that it centralizes resources and communication that might otherwise be lost in a sea of incoming emails or phone calls.

Getting Involved

With accessibility in mind, ResponderStrong is offering their new wellness tool free of charge, and hopes to obtain the grant funds necessary to continue doing so well into the future. A “skinny version” launched not long ago in early June, to great acclaim.

Rhonda’s colleagues from the All Clear Foundation, ResponderStrong’s new parent organization, joined us again in early June to provide a post-launch update. So far, more than six hundred users have engaged with more than one hundred fifty available resource types in this version, and reviews have been overwhelmingly positive.

Users are pleased with what Janell Farr, All Clear Foundation’s President, calls the “personalized journey” the tool provides.

“It’s timely and necessary,” she notes. “First Responders really connect with the personalized testimonials.” And the SUCCEED, THRIVE, MATTER design ensures more than just mental wellness intervention. The body-centered fitness tool is a particular favorite so far.

The full version of the wellness tool, with even more resources, will be available to users in August. You can access the tool now by visiting you.responderstrong.org.

ResponderStrong’s recent transition to its new home within the All Clear Foundation extended services well beyond the state of Colorado. However, Colorado-specific resources still abound, making this a great resource for first responders at CSD Pool districts.

Special thanks to Rhonda Kelly for her time in contributing to this piece.