A call for local, state, and national collaboration to address public safety health and wellness

by Dr. Anna Fitch Courie - Director, Responder Wellness, FirstNet Program at AT&T

August 28, 2023

Three years ago, when I set out to build the FirstNet® Health and Wellness program, I knew the problems facing public safety health and wellness weren’t something I could “fix” on my own. First, the health and wellness problems are complex.  Rates of PTSD, depression, and anxiety among first responders exceed those of the general population. They also contribute to secondary and tertiary health risk factors such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, metabolic disorders, injuries and substance misuse.

These complex problems don’t have a “one size fits all” solution. They take time, investment, and collaboration across multi-disciplinary organizations to create both micro and macro level interventions. I needed help to make a meaningful contribution and I wanted our activities to be more than just lip service and platitudes to the service that emergency responders provide our communities on a daily basis. Nothing sounds more disingenuous than a “thank you for your service” without meaningful action behind those words.

That’s why I wanted to build the program and roadmap with public safety on board. I needed leadership, not just from traditional first responders, such as police, fire, and EMS, but from the entire spectrum of professionals who respond to disaster. We began building a coalition of leadership from all the public safety organizations inclusive of traditional first responders, but also folding in emergency telecommunication professionals, corrections, frontline healthcare workers, emergency management, and federal and nonprofit organizations. Thus, the FirstNet Health and Wellness Coalition was born. 

The Coalition

Over the last three years, I’ve sweated bringing together these 2 dozen organizations and leadership.  I’ve combed the literature, conducted surveys, assessed capabilities and evidence-based practices. We’ve put together solutions and partners to begin tackling responder wellness across agencies large and small. We’ve piloted and tested efforts, demonstrating outcomes and improvements. But there were always gaps in the process.

As the Coalition continued to mature, certain themes and recommendations consistently rose to the top of our priority list.  Many of these recommendations are macro level (i.e., national, community, and municipality level) gaps that we need to address to truly transform and improve public safety wellness. As a result, the Coalition felt we needed to publish a paper with our findings and recommendations to lay the foundation for legislative advocacy for the future.

The last three years of work has culminated in the publication of the comprehensive First Responder Wellness White Paper: "Helping the Helpers:  Lessons Learned and Outcomes to Date from the FirstNet Health and Wellness Coalition (PDF)."

This publication is an incredible collaborative effort and achievement. And I cannot think of a better time to launch these recommendations than as we enter Suicide Prevention Awareness month in September. I remain humbled, grateful and amazed at the steadfast commitment of the public safety associations that contributed to this work and the recommendations we’ve espoused.  Getting a group of multi-disciplinary organizations to reach consensus on where we need to go as a nation to support public safety is a rare feat. And yet they did. 

Key recommendations

This paper outlines five key recommendations we need to address:

  1. Public safety leaders need to engage in the wellness of their officers. This needs to go beyond talking about wellness to their subordinates to modeling the wellness behaviors they want to see in the rank and file.

  2. We need to integrate wellness training throughout the career life cycle of a public safety professional. Just as we train them for the technical expertise they bring to disaster, we need to train them on how to stay well despite continuous exposure to potentially traumatic events.

  3. While grants fill a huge void in funding wellness for responders, state and local municipalities MUST allocate funding to care for their essential personnel. It’s time to stop asking leaders to choose between funding for care of their people or the equipment they need for disaster response.

  4. With the increasing awareness of public safety health and wellness problems, wellness programming is exploding. Associations need to publish standards on evidence-based wellness programs for first responders and establish technical assistance centers to help with implementation.

  5. Finally, we need to continue to communicate. The Coalition is doing tremendous work at the national level. But if the information, recommendations and best practices don’t get down to the local level, we really aren’t helping the boots on the ground individuals we intend to support. 

Building a roadmap

As I reflect on where we were at the beginning of building this program to where we are today – with a clear roadmap for transforming the future of responder wellness – I am grateful.  I am also excited, committed and confident we can make a difference. As long as leaders come together with a commitment to care for their people, we can foster the improvements needed – even as we continue to drive collaboration at the local, state, and national levels. If we don’t do anything, our communities will surely suffer.  If we do not help the helpers, who will be there to help us? 

Dr. Anna Fitch Courie, Director of Responder Wellness, FirstNet Program at AT&T is a nurse, Army wife, former university faculty, and author. Anna holds a bachelor’s in nursing from Clemson University; a master’s in nursing education from the University of Wyoming; and a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree from Ohio State University.  Anna’s area of expertise is integration of public health strategy across disparate organizations to achieve health improvement goals. Anna is a passionate Clemson football fan; loves to read, cook, walk, hike; and is an avid traveler.