JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department has added therapy dogs, providing another way to help firefighters and dispatchers deal with the emotional trauma that can come with being a first responder.
When it’s just too hard for JFRD employees to talk with people about their traumatic callouts, its Peer Support Team now has three therapy dogs who just listen.
Two of them are black Labs named Gunner and Cash, both of whom were introduced by JFRD at a news conference Tuesday afternoon. The two American Kennel Club-recognized therapy dogs were donated through a K9s For Warriors program to help first responders relieve stress following difficult calls and make a positive impact on their mental health.
“When our firefighters have been to a bad scene or are struggling with stress related to their job, Gunner and Cash provide comfort and companionship,” said JFRD Fire Chief Keith Powers. “They have the ability to sense distress, go up to those folks, help them relax and overcome that stress. They’re a very important part of our department.”
The third dog is 3 1/2-year-old Tilly. The moment JFRD dispatcher Melissa Wertz spotted Tilly, her demeanor changed in an instant.
“It’s nice,” Wertz said “I mean, who can’t cheer up when there’s a pup around?”
Wertz was on the line of a call about a deadly shooting of a 3-year-old boy.
Editor’s note: Portions of the 911 call in this story are disturbing.
Wertz: “What’s the address of your emergency?”
Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office dispatcher: “Rescue, hey. Ah, her son just shot himself. Ma’am?”
Wertz: “The son just shot himself?”
Wertz: “OK. Is it a house?”
JSO: “It’s a house.”
Wertz: “Do you know where he was shot?”
JSO: “No. Ma’am? Speak to rescue for me. Ma’am, are you there?”
911 caller: “Hello? Yes!”
Wertz: “OK, where? ... OK, I’m getting help started, OK? They’re getting there as fast as they can, but I need you to stay on the line with me, OK?”
“She was so hysterical, JSO had to give me the address because she couldn’t get it out. She was just losing it hysterically,” Wertz recounted.
Caller: “He shot hisself in the head.”
Wertz: “He shot himself where?”
Caller: “In the head.”
Wertz: “In the head?”
“It sucks in this situation altogether at any time for anybody, but when you hear it’s a child, it definitely gets harder,” Wertz told News4JAX.
Wertz: “How old is he?”
Wertz: How old?
Caller: “He’s 3.”
Wertz: “He’s 3? Three years old?”
Wertz: “OK. Is he awake right now? Ma’am, listen to me. We need to help him right now, so I need you to listen and pay attention. Is he awake right now?”
Caller: “No, he’s not.”
Wertz: “He’s not? Is he breathing?”
Caller: “Ma, is he breathing? He’s not breathing.”
Wertz: “He’s not? OK. I need you to take the phone in there right now, OK? We’re going to do CPR.”
Caller: “Oh, my God.”
Wertz: “OK, listen. We’re going to do mouth-to-mouth, OK? Can you hear me?”
Caller: (Hangs up.)
“All I can say is it sucks. It’s the worst call,” Wentz said. “As soon as they disconnected I had to excuse myself from the room — which doesn’t always happen depending on how busy we are in here.”
But when a call like that happens, the workday doesn’t end there.
“I try not to bring it home because nobody wants to hear this,” Wertz said. “Thankfully they had, after that call — that was my second call after a few months that was pretty rough — they had one of the Peer Support guys come and talk to me.”
Firefighter Kevin Murray is a member of JFRD’s Peer Support Team. He has suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after 20 years with the fire department. He recently found Tilly, who helped ease his own suffering, and then had her trained and certified to also help his colleagues.
“If you do not have the proper rehab and venting measures to deal with these types of events that we go through on a daily basis, your cup just builds and builds and builds and eventually it’s overflowing,” Murray said.
Tilly is joined by Gunner and Cash, both of whom donated through the Station Dog Program of K9s For Warriors, a national nonprofit that provides service dogs to veterans. They are the 15th and 16th dogs to be donated to first responders through the program. Gunner will join Fire Station 52 near Collins Road and Blanding Boulevard, and Cash will join Fire Station 71 serving the Jacksonville Beach area. While the dogs will be stationed at particular fire stations, they will go wherever they’re called if JFRD has a need for their services at another station.
“First responders are regularly exposed to traumatic events and stressors that have a similar impact to what we see our veterans experience on a daily basis,” said Rory Diamond, CEO of K9s For Warriors. “Our Station Dog Program’s main goal is to help mitigate stress and elevate emotional wellbeing through the level of companionship these dogs provide. We couldn’t be more thrilled to have Station Dogs Gunner and Cash working alongside members of JFRD’s Peer Support Team to do just that for our local heroes.”
The dogs are a stress reliever to make even the toughest break a smile.
“When he gets in their lap, within 30 seconds, their heart rate and their blood pressure drops — just that fast,” said Lt. Bobby Oakley, a JFRD Peer Support Member.
Gunner recently visited with Lt. James Baity and Engineer Joseph Gresser from Fire Station 21, both of whom helped treat their fellow firefighters who were badly hurt while battling flames at Blount Island aboard a ship carrying vehicles in June 2020. The two were among those just ending their shift after fighting the fire for hours themselves when suddenly there was an explosion.
“We went from, our job is done to our job is just starting over again in an entirely different capacity,” Gresser said. “It was sheer exhaustion by the time we were done, cleaned up and back at the station.”
Nine firefighters were hospitalized, four of whom were taken to a burn unit. Most had to have their gear cut off their bodies.
“You don’t want to second-guess yourself, but that’s inevitably what happens,” Gresser said. “You know, did you do the right thing for them in that moment? I think we did.”
“We’re exposed to a lot of trauma over a 20-, 25-, 30-year career. And a lot of that stuff built up, there’s no doubt about that. To say that it doesn’t bother you, I think those guys are incorrect,” Baity said. “Over time, it will. Whether it bothers you now or after you retire, at some point it does get to you.”
They lean on each other to get through the tough times and now have one more vital tool in their arsenal to help heal the growing wounds that aren’t visible.