Warsaw Fire Department Exploring Mental Health Outreach Initiatives

(Photo supplied / Warsaw-Wayne Fire Territory)

Mental health services may become a part of the tool belt for Warsaw-Wayne Fire Territory first responders.

During the WWFT board meeting Tuesday, Fire Chief Mike Wilson and Warsaw Mayor Joe Thallemer discussed a program the city of Fishers is doing that Thallemer asked Wilson to look into. That discussion came after Wilson talked about Chris Fancil’s appointment as EMS coordinator and Battalion Chief Aaron Bolinger’s appointment as assistant chief.

“Moving into 2020, we have filled our EMS coordinator position, and we also appointed an assistant chief that’s been long overdue,” Wilson said.

Once the fire department has the position of battalion chief filled, Bolinger will be working under Wilson’s direction and with the battalion chiefs and crews Monday through Friday.

Fancil is a paramedic and came to the fire territory as a part-time employee when the department’s part-time program was started.

“He is a paramedic, primary instructor, he’s an American Heart (Association) instructor. He did some great things for us during the part-time phase. We have some new programs that I think the mayor might speak about briefly that we’re going to introduce Chris into,” Wilson said. “We’re big into trying to take care of our communities.”

He thanked the fire territory board for being supportive of the fire department and what it does in the community.

“We’ve increased our public education. We increased our giving to commercial facilities, manufacturing facilities on fire extinguisher training. We’re going to move forward in that, and we’re going to make some new changes for what we’re doing on some mental health and some paramedical programs that the mayor has researched and brought to the table for us,” Wilson said, adding that Fancil will be a big part of that.

Wilson said the fire crews “eat up” the daily training Fancil gives them. “They just grasp at every bit of knowledge that he can give to them to make them better.”

Thallemer said the assistant fire chief position has been in the salary ordinance for a long time. Wilson said there’s been so much growth with the city and fire department that the administrative chief’s job has become very broad. He said Bolinger “is extremely book smart and very fire-scene and emergency-scene tactics. He has it. He has spent a lot of his career in training and trying to improve himself so he can improve others. I think this is going to be a great challenge for Aaron to bring three shifts together in one direction.”

Wilson said he was very excited to have an assistant chief who understands “all” aspects of emergency services. He talked about how Bolinger and a group of guys brought technical rescue and confined space rescue to the community when others didn’t think it was needed. “They’ve proven that we do, and they’ve succeeded in making it a tremendous team effort in our department, along with basic EMT and some advanced EMTs before we got Christopher onboard. Aaron helped with that tremendously,” Wilson said.

Thallemer said, “Our fire departments, our emergency services are being asked to do a whole lot more now than they used to be.”

He said there are basic firefighting skills they must have, but they also need confined space training, technical rescues, swift water, hazmat training, medical knowledge and more.

“The skills that are required, the operational requirements on an emergency fire service is so much different than it used to be. And the growth of the equipment, and the growth of what our department is doing both in the city and in the fire territory … Aaron Bolinger, his responsibility is to make sure that our guys are trained in all of those disciplines,” Thallemer said.

As the demands, training and equipment on the fire crews expand, Thallemer said having a guy like Bolinger dedicated to operations is “critical.” He said it’s not so much firefighting anymore as it is emergency services.

Thallemer said he’s asked Wilson to look into a program that other communities in the state are doing that will address some mental health concerns.

“We’re trying to use our resources, use our guys, use our training to make wellness visits and to try and assist, and hopefully let folks in our community know, that there’s somebody there that cares oftentimes when they need that,” he said.

The details of the program haven’t been announced yet, Thallemer said. “We’re in the stages of looking at what other communities have done and what’s worked best for them. But that’s a program I am directing the chief to explore, and hopefully by June 1 we will have something in place.”

He said the city of Fishers is an example. Firemen go out and make wellness calls. If there’s an acute mental health crisis that maybe occurs in an emergency room, “they get resources to follow up with the families and those individuals on subsequent days to see if things are going better,” Thallemer said. There’s also initiatives to try and minimize and prevent suicide.

“It’s a whole mental health initiative that just utilizes the foot soldiers, if you will, that we’ve got. The trained foot soldiers we’ve got within the fire department,” he said.

Board member Brandon Schmitt said he’d be interested to see the “nuts and bolts” of how that works. He said it goes along with the more proactive services of the fire department.

“You can’t ignore it. In every community, it’s a problem. I’m sure Scott (Sigerfoos) and Chris can account for that as well, being in the EMS,” Schmitt said. He said mental health emergencies are often disguised as physical health emergencies and are becoming increasingly more common.

“And then the overlay of drug abuse. All of that fits in,” Thallemer said.

Schmitt asked if there was any initiative or thought about providing mental health assistance for first responders.

“It’s tough seeing some of the things that they see, being woken up from a dead sleep in the middle of the night. Physically, that’s so, so hard on these guys and gal,” Schmitt, a former fireman himself, said.

Wilson said there’s a critical stress team that Fancil will be a part of, and another firefighter is working on another program.

“I spoke at a group in another county a couple of months ago, and a lot of it was prevention of first responders’ suicides from law enforcement all the way through to dispatchers. The things they hear and see and deal with. When they’re waking up in the middle of the night and that’s all they can see, it’s time to help them,” Wilson said.