Summit County Rescue Group embarks on mental health training pilot program
Search and rescue officials work to create a more sustainable system statewide
Colorado is looking to make its search and rescue operations more sustainable, and one of the primary efforts involves expanding mental health resources for rescuers.
In June, Gov. Jared Polis signed Senate Bill 21-245 into law, a piece of legislation meant to better support rescue teams by launching a study into the sustainability of rescue operations as it relates to equipment reimbursement, retirement benefits, training and more. But perhaps the most notable piece of the bill includes research into the physical and psychological toll that the work can take on rescuers, and what steps can be taken to better train volunteers on how to handle stress on the job and at home.
The Summit County Rescue Group was selected as one of a few teams around the state to take part in a new pilot program aimed at supporting rescuers dealing with stress injuries. The program is meant to help educate rescuers on the issues they may face and provide them with the necessary tools to cope in a healthy way.
“It’s fantastic because if you integrate this into the way that you operate your team, it allows you to help individuals, help your team function and help the people you’re rescuing by changing the whole culture in a way that’s really aware of this component — the reality of a rescue,” Summit County Rescue Group Medical Officer Aaron Parmet said. “What we do is not stress free. We choose to do it because we love our community and we love our teammates and we love to give back, but it doesn’t come without hard experiences.”
Parmet said stress injuries, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, are more than just psychological and can manifest physically, as well. If those injuries can be mitigated properly at the onset, it can help to create better outcomes for rescuers in the short and long term he said. He said stress injuries can occur in a number of ways, including accumulated stress from the quantity of missions — Summit’s rescue group will again break record call volumes this year — as well as critical missions that carry extra stress, such as fatal accidents, and even from things taking place in rescuers’ personal or professional lives.
Parmet said the rescue group has traditionally offered its members counseling through partnerships with the Summit County Sheriff’s Office and Building Hope Summit County, and rescue group spokesperson Anna DeBattiste said the group offers one-time critical incident stress debriefings following particularly traumatic missions. But the new training, offered for free through Salida-based Responder Alliance as part of the pilot, is meant to help improve stress injury awareness among individual rescuers and the team at large.
Parmet said there are almost 30 team members going through the training currently. They’re being taught about how they can interpret their current stress levels on the Responder Stress Continuum, a self-assessment tool that identifies symptoms rescuers are likely to deal with and places them in green, yellow, orange or red segments on a color scale. Generally, green means good to go, and red means a rescuer is facing critical stress levels and should take a break.
“We see people feel obligated to keep going and going and pushing even when they aren’t in the right place,” Parmet said. “(We want to) make people feel empowered to say, ‘Today is not the day to be in that response and that role.’ Self-limiting has always been the name of the game for unpaid professional rescuers, and this is just one more component in that.”
In other words, the training is encouraging rescuers to not only look at whether they have the skills necessary to climb a certain cliff or handle a particular patient, but also whether they’re in the right frame of mind to do so. Rescuers are also encouraged to take into account familial and work stress in their decision-making.
Parmet said the hope is that the training will be ingrained in the group’s culture, wherein team members will regularly ask one another about their stress colors and turn to another member on the team’s deep bench if someone isn’t feeling up to the task.
Rescuers are also being instructed in psychological first aid, a process that includes getting themselves or whoever they’re working with — a teammate, patient or family member — to a safe space, calming them down and creating an environment of empowerment, connection and hope.
“The biggest message we have is having a stress injury is not a sign of weakness,” Parmet said. “It’s all of these factors coming together, how a particular event relates to your particular personality and state in life. That unique personal experience is why everyone has a completely different reaction to the same event. Getting that idea into team culture, that it’s not fault-based or failure-based but it’s individual and health and resilience-based … that’s what we want to build into the mindsets of these rescuers. …
“I think training like this will make the really demanding commitment of being an unpaid professional rescuer more sustainable throughout the state, throughout all teams.”
Equipping rescuers for the future
In addition to providing better mental health support and training for rescue workers, SB21-245 is meant to improve the sustainability of search and rescue operations in a number of other ways, including mandating Colorado Parks and Wildlife to conduct a statewide study on how best to address challenges related to the availability of workers’ compensation and reimbursement for personal travel and equipment expenses, among other topics.
DeBattiste said while not a concern for Summit County Rescue Group members, many rescue workers around the state aren’t eligible for workers’ compensation while providing mutual aid for other organizations.
“These small teams that don’t have a lot of resources need mutual aid quite a bit,” DeBattiste said. “The (Colorado Search and Rescue Association) coordinator will call other teams and say, ‘Can you go?’ And the second question is, ‘Will your workers’ comp follow you?’ Sometimes the answer is ‘no,’ and that’s obviously a problem. We’re one of the most fortunate teams in the state when it comes to the resources we have and the relationship we have with our sheriff, so that’s not a problem for us. But it is a problem on the rare occasion when we need mutual aid.”
With regard to personal expenses for the volunteer workers, DeBattiste said it could be a tall order for rescuers to pay for all their own gear. She noted that a recent survey of new team members over the past two years indicated it cost volunteers an average of about $1,000 to equip themselves.
The bill requires the study and its subsequent recommendations to be completed by January 2022.
Along with the recently passed bill, the Colorado Search and Rescue Association announced last week that its current president, Jeff Sparhawk, would be moving into a new position as the organization’s first full-time executive director in another step to ensure efforts to improve backcountry search and rescue operations throughout the state continue.
“We at (Colorado Search and Rescue Association) have done so much over the past couple years to push forward this legislative agenda, the goal of which is to get enough research done so we can design a more sustainable system,” DeBattiste said. “And Jeff Sparhawk … is really the driver of all this. … We think where we’re headed is some sort of oversight organization at the state level that’s composed of a couple state officials, a couple (search and rescue association) people and a couple county sheriffs.
“Obviously, we don’t want it to just be a state organization. We don’t want to lose control or be taken over by a government entity because what we’ve been doing has worked for many years. It’s just as teams get busier and busier, it’s harder to see how it’s going to continue to work.”
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