The Peer Support Comfort K-9 Program helps provide companionship, comfort, socialization, mental stimulation, and appropriate physical touch to first responders in need. The team consists of a trained Peer Support Member, trained handler, and the animal. Currently, the program has two trained dogs, Star and Henry.
"What we've seen nationwide in the fire service over last five years, is an increased number of suicides," said Riverside County Fire Department spokesperson Jeff LaRusso.
CALFIRE officials said many cases of Post Traumatic Stress Injury go unreported so numbers could be higher than known. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association said over 50% of firefighter deaths are caused by stress and exhaustion. This program officially began in late August 2021. It's available to all CAL FIRE / Riverside County Fire Department employees - from first responders to support personnel.
"What we're able to see was a different demeanor in our dispatchers within the first five or so minutes,' said LaRusso. "A much more relaxed atmosphere. They're in a high-stress job."
The dogs and their handler/peer support are allowed to visit county fire facilities and stations through an approval process. They have already visited most of the county's fire stations. The trained handlers are volunteer reserves of the Riverside County Fire. If needed, Peer Support K-9's will be allowed to respond to other County agencies through an approval process.
"The abilities that [Henry] brings to the table is when to engage and when not to engage. So he'll know when somebody is having an issue," said CALFIRE Comfort K-9 Handler, Steven Booth. "His positive distraction is huge. And I see it all the time."
A CALFIRE spokesperson said the Comfort K-9 Program will be certified through a nationally recognized Therapy Dog or Animal Assisted Crisis Response program. Also, the Comfort K-9 Program is looking to add more dogs and trained handlers to their team.
"If our firefighters are in good physical and emotional health, the public is in better hands," said Booth. "So we're just here to make sure that that happens."