Compass: Prioritizing first responder wellness in the City of Huntington

by Austin Sanders - Director, Compass, City of Huntington

 “As a fire service, we cannot ignore our most valuable asset. It's not the fire station. It's not the apparatus. It's the firefighters themselves."

First responders put their lives on the line daily to protect their communities. But the job takes a toll on their physical and mental health.

The Compass Program grew out of a philanthropic U.S. Mayors challenge. We were 1 of 9 cities across the country competing for funds to address a challenging issue. In some areas it was transportation. In others, it was homelessness.

The City of Huntington had been facing an enormous challenge due to the opioid epidemic. We had so many resources going towards helping people struggling with addiction. And we needed to do something to take care of our first responders.

Typically, our fire department runs about 3,000 calls a year. With the overdoses, we were running upwards of 5,000 calls a year. And the high volume of calls was putting a strain on our police and fire departments.

The Compass Program provided our first responders the necessary resources to enhance their health, humanity, performance and leadership. Since then, private foundations have stepped up to help fund the Compass Center, a wellness center located in the police department accessible to police and fire personnel 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Embedded wellness coaches

The Compass Program provides two embedded wellness coaches – one focusing on physical fitness and the other on mental wellness. Our mental fitness coach, Amy Jefferson, specializes in all things related to mental health, meditation and mindfulness practices. She is a liaison between our first responders and outside clinicians, specializing in everything from marriage counseling to general therapy, including EMDR therapy.

Our physical fitness coach, Amy Hanshaw, is an exercise physiologist. She’s not just a personal trainer who can create an incredible workout routine. She helps our first responders identify the motions they’re going to be making on the job and helps strengthen their resiliency to decrease the risk of injury while in the field.

We also have an incredible group of instructors, chiropractors, massage therapists and others who come in a couple days a month to work with our firefighters.

Wellness resources

The Compass Center is a wellness center accessible to police and fire personnel 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It provides various resources to support our first responders' physical and mental well-being. The lounge allows folks to decompress, spend time in a massage chair, or catch up with colleagues. We offer yoga classes not only at the Compass Center but also at the fire stations.

The occupational health room includes outside providers like chiropractors and massage therapists. The sauna is essential to the fire department because they are exposed to many toxins while working on the fire scene. The infrared sauna helps open their pores and eliminate toxins from their system.

Finally, the meditation room allows firefighters to meditate, practice mindfulness, and have a quiet space to decompress.

The Compass Nutrition Center takes a holistic approach to wellness. It’ recognizes that it's easy to put nutrition last on the priority list in a fast-paced job and a busy department. The nutrition center teaches first responders to make smarter choices while living a fast-paced lifestyle. We also use the nutrition center for family activities, such as cookie decorating and pumpkin carving. We invite the first responders and their families and give them a safe space to reconnect with their families.

Importance of embedded staff

The biggest thing that separates Compass from a normal Employee Assistance Provider (EAP) is that we embed our staff in both departments, especially the fire department.

We issue our staff turnout gear and we try our best to be on the scene of calls. Being on the fireground allows us to understand how the firefighters are feeling and offer intervention strategies to help them when we see the challenges they're facing.

Until we stand on a fireground, watch what firefighters do, and ask questions about why they do things a certain way, we don't fully understand their job. Being a firefighter is like being part of a close-knit family. Building relationships with them is essential for us.

Measuring success

Once a year, we do a survey to measure everything from post-traumatic stress, depression, suicidality, workplace culture, nutrition habits, physical exercise – all the things vital to gauge the overall holistic health of the firefighter.

The City of Huntington is currently the only city in the country that routinely measures that data. The survey has shown that members of the Huntington Fire Department who participate in Compass have twice the level of job satisfaction as those who do not.

There is also a 26-percent increase in their ability to deal with difficult situations, communication skills and improved resiliency when dealing with high-stress situations.

The impact of Compass

I attended a fire convention with our mental and physical fitness coaches last year. And several firefighters who had heard about Compass from members of the Huntington Fire Department approached us with questions. These firefighters had witnessed some horrendous calls. Unfortunately, they had not received any resources or information about how to cope with their struggles. They were just told to suck it up.

As a fire service, we cannot ignore our most valuable asset. It's not the fire station. It's not the apparatus. It's the firefighters themselves. We must recognize that the challenges facing Huntington firefighters are challenges facing firefighters all across this country.

Our mission at Compass is to be the global leader in this arena and help other departments identify strategies and interventions to help those who support our communities. It's time we start reflecting on ourselves and understand that to be the best fire departments we can be, we must take care of our firefighters.

Austin Sanders is the Director of Compass for the City of Huntington, WV.