Helping bring responder health and wellness programs to Ohio first responders

by Steven M. Click, Director, First Responder Wellness, Ohio Department of Public Safety, Law Enforcement Initiatives

May 17, 2024

It was a beautiful Sunday morning in 1985 when a 21-year-old state trooper was dispatched to an injury crash. This was his first day driving and he hoped this would be his chance to respond to an emergency and maybe even help rescue someone.

Upon arriving, he found a 16-year-old distraught – his 17-year-old friend under the pickup truck just off the roadway.  As the first officer on the scene, he was “in charge.” Parents drove up on scene. Fire and EMS personnel went about doing their jobs and he knew notifications had to be made to various authorities.  He also knew he would be filing charges on the 16-year-old as the driver who caused the crash.

The scene that day was chaotic, tragic and heart wrenching as he heard the parent’s reaction when they learned their 17-year-old son had died in the crash.

I was that 21-year-old trooper.

It comes with the job

This scenario plays out across the state and country, every day.  While life altering for the families, this is what first responders face every day. They may respond to a similar or even worse situation before their tour ends. Tomorrow, next week, next month and for the rest of their career, they will respond to death, conflict, tragedy until they decide to retire. 

Some leave early. They can’t deal with the pain, trauma and sadness.  Some drink to numb themselves from the things they see, hear, smell and experience. And some, sadly feel their only escape is to take their own life. 

As the Director of First Responder Wellness for the Ohio Department of Public Safety/Law Enforcement Initiatives program, my goal is to help bring responder health and wellness programs to our Ohio first responders.

Helping Ohio first responders

Ohio first responders are on the front lines every day – ready to protect, defend and provide life-saving services to the citizens of Ohio, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.  This can put them at risk, physically and mentally.  The Ohio Department of Public Safety/Law Enforcement Initiatives program supports Ohio’s 92,000+ law enforcement, fire, EMS, corrections and dispatch personnel.

Before taking on my role as director of first responder wellness, I served as a member of the Ohio State Highway Patrol for 36 years. And in the last 2 ½ years of service, I was the commander of the Ohio ASSIST program, which provides pre-critical incident training and post-critical incident aftercare for first responders and their support persons.

When the highway patrol created its first peer support program – the Member’s Assistance Team (MAT) – I helped oversee the program until my retirement in 2018.  After my retirement, I served as the first responder liaison for Ohio Mental Health & Addiction Services.

While serving with MAT, I responded to an officer involved shooting. This incident involved multiple officers from various agencies. I knew the young officer I was going to see. He was a considerate and thoughtful man who never believed he would be involved in such an incident. We met. I talked. He listened. And he thanked me after.

We met up again sometime later and I asked how he was doing. He smiled and said, “I know you told me a lot of things but honestly, all I remember is you coming in, shaking my hand and telling me I would be OK. I replayed that over and over in my mind in the weeks that followed my incident.”

I realized then that often just being there with a kind and supportive word can make a huge difference to someone experiencing a trauma.

Why we do what we do

In late November 2001, I was sent to New York City along with other peer support from Ohio and other states. The peer support resources in New York had understandably been over-taxed following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.  While near Times Square, I found myself talking to an NYPD officer.  He said he was glad we were there because some people needed to talk about 9/11. But not him. He said: “I’m good with what I did that day.”

Forty-five minutes later, I knew everything he’d experienced that day.  Watching the second plane hit the tower. Watching the towers fall and running for his life while trying to save the life of the superior officer he was assisting. Trying to find shelter under a fire truck, then quickly realizing they were going to suffocate.  Running to storefronts only to find the doors locked.  Being prepared to shoot the glass to gain shelter from the dust cloud when the door opened and someone dragged them both to safety.  I didn’t say a word.  I just listened. 

He kind of smiled and said: “I’m glad you guys are here. There are people who need to talk.  I’m not one of them. But I hope you can help some people.” 

Responder wellness mission

Back in 2016, I was the Commander of Cadet Training for the Ohio State Highway Patrol Academy.  We were preparing for the current class graduation when the patrol superintendent asked to meet with me. Col. Paul Pride said we were going to create a program to help Ohio’s first responder community.

It had to be open to all first responders and it had to be free so no one missed because they couldn’t afford to attend. 

In the summer of 2021, the Ohio Department of Public Safety wanted to provide training and resources to help Ohio’s first responder community deal with the mental challenges they faced daily.

The mission of first responder wellness is to connect public safety agencies with wellness training programs and resources.  Being able to transition between these 2 disciplines provides opportunities for partnerships. And it allows us to assist first responders in accessing the training and resources they need in their areas.

We work closely with mental health recovery boards and addiction mental health boards across the state. These partnerships include training and serving as a representative and reference for government and private organizations.

For me, that conversation in New York City in 2001 planted the seed for all of this – putting me on the path I am on today.      

Steven M. Click serves as the Director of First Responder Wellness for the Ohio Department of Public Safety, Law Enforcement Initiatives. He is a retired lieutenant from the Ohio State Highway Patrol where he served for 36 years, completing his career assigned to the Ohio State Highway Patrol, Office of Personnel / Ohio ASSIST program. Steve has been involved in peer support since 1992 and helped lead the Ohio State Highway Patrol’s Member’s Assistance Team (MAT) from its inception in 2002 and previously served as the Operational Commander.  In 1992, he received the Ohio Distinguished Law Enforcement Valor Award, the highest award for valor in the State of Ohio. He and his wife Lori live in Grove City, Ohio.