A New Era of Fire Dogs

Heartland Fire and Rescue Department in El Cajon, California recently celebrated an important milestone, and it may not be what you think. Yara, the Department’s therapy dog, successfully completed her one year “probation” with the agency, marking a major achievement for the “Fire Station Dog Pilot Program”, an El Cajon firefighter wellness initiative.    

The program, which launched in 2019, is part of the agency’s unconventional approach to the rising mental health concerns that surround the fire service. A 2018 survey completed by IAFF/NBC revealed that out of 7,000 firefighters surveyed, 95% felt incredibly stressed. In 2019, FEMA reported the rising number of reported firefighter suicides, a number that nearly doubles those of on-duty firefighter fatalities.  After a year of unparalleled stressors from extreme wildfires, civil unrest, and a global pandemic, it’s likely that those numbers are climbing.

As a public servant and HR professional, these numbers are alarming.  As the wife of a firefighter, they feel debilitating.  Research in this arena has significantly increased in recent years, and the growing trend of awareness and increased mental health programs is encouraging.  Departments throughout California are turning their efforts towards the mental health of their first responders, and Heartland is setting an exceptional example.  

The department conducted a tremendous amount of research in developing the program, the first of its kind in California.  While some agencies have therapy dogs that are assigned to company officers, Yara, a black Labrador retriever, lives at the station offering 24/7 emotional support in a more consistent fashion. “We want our firefighters to seamlessly reap the therapeutic benefits of having a dog while they are at the station - at all times” notes Marisol Thorn, Director of Human Resources.  This approach allows firefighters to benefit from the positive mental and physical impacts of having a companion immediately following any critical incidents without having to ask for assistance or seek approval.  

The Department partnered with K-9 Caring Angels, an organization based in Virginia, to ensure the proper training and handling of Yara, and to orientate the crews to life with a therapy dog.  Several measures were put into place, such as station boundaries, health and safety precautions, and dietary restrictions.  

The program has been extensively supported and backed by City Management; however, the ownership and responsibility of the program is that of the firefighters, a factor that was very important to the agency in their efforts to encourage employee engagement.  Human Resources staff, the Firefighter Association, the City Manager and Fire Department Management worked together to develop the program and will continue to measure the effectiveness and success. Most notable is the collaborative approach and tremendous support from the City and Department Leadership, which is critical to the continued success of the program.

For the “dog people” out in the world, you don’t have to be told how much comfort a wagging tail can provide when you walk through the door after a long day of work.  Imagine her greeting a crew after a difficult call, offering unconditional support during the heaviest of times.

It is my hope that mental health awareness will continue to grow, spurring ideas such as this pilot program, and encouraging other departments to take notice and follow suit. The investment may prove to have a profound impact on the overall wellness of employees, not to mention the morale boost that comes with an agency going out on a limb, listening to their membership, and ultimately taking care of the people who have devoted their lives to the care of others.

Header image photo credit: Shana Thompson (@shanatphoto)

Kelly Gonzales, M.A.

Kelly has dedicated her career to human resources. She has served as a human resources manager for the City of Upland as well as a Human Resources Office Manager in the public sector. Kelly brings with her a breadth and depth of human resources experience and the ability to understand client needs to find a solution that helps moves organizations forward.‍

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