Lola has just bjoined the ranks of the West Hartford Fire Department’s Peer Support Team.
By Ronni Newton
The West Hartford Fire Department’s newest member may have trouble fitting into standard turnout gear, but she likely won’t have trouble fitting in with department members.
Firefighter Sean Howard, who heads the department’s Peer Support Team, said there has been talk about getting a therapy dog for a few years, and after he attended a peer support class about six months ago he learned more about the benefits of having a therapy dog, and how it’s a growing trend in departments nationwide. Howard is the vice president of International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) Local 1241, which along with the department’s administration strongly supported of having a therapy dog.
Lola, a 3-year-old yellow lab, arrived in Connecticut last week from Florida. A rescue who is originally from Texas – and according to DNA tests is pure Labrador – she has been in training for the past six months at K9s for Warriors.
“Firefighters dedicate their lives to service to the community, and are often characterized by bravery and selflessness, but with that often comes a tendency to look past or maybe ignore stress or other problems,” Howard said. “A therapy dog like Lola is trained to support that need, and the dogs can be very disarming in getting firefighters to open up to things that might be bothering them,” he said, helping them to then get the help they need.
Howard noted that the rate of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) among firefighters is roughly three times higher than of the general population. In a single day, a firefighter or firefighter-paramedic may see more trauma that others will witness in a lifetime, and PTSD can be caused not just by a single event, but by the accumulation of experiences.
The Bristol Fire Department obtained a dog from K9s for Warriors a few months ago, and that’s where Howard learned about that particular organization.
“It’s a veteran-operated service organization in Florida,” said Howard. K9s for Warriors was started by the mother of a veteran. Most of the dogs come from high-kill shelters, and according to Howard the organization “puts them through a very rigorous service dog program” before giving the dogs to veterans suffering from PTSD or some type of trauma. Some of the dogs don’t quite make the cut to provide service for veterans – either due to aptitude, temperament, or even body type – and those dogs are made available to other organizations as therapy dogs, also at no charge.
It turns out that Lola’s hips are a bit too wide for service work, Howard said. They chose her from among a dozen or so dogs that were available, and she will now be a key member of the West Hartford Fire Department’s Peer Support Team.
Howard said Lola (that was already her name) was brought to Connecticut by a representative from K9s for Warriors, and arrived on March 7. They brought enough supplies and equipment to get her set in her new role, and spent time with Firefighter/Paramedic Matt Hebert, who was selected to be the primary handler, reviewing the training she had been given and the commands to which she will respond.
Hebert said he’s been fortunate to have experienced a lot of “firsts” with the department – the first classified as a firefighter/paramedic in 2016, the first department member to receive a COVID-19 vaccine in December 2020, and now the first to be the handler of a dog. “This is the greatest one,” he said.
“This is something we talked about when we lost brother Joe Mangione, ” Hebert said, referring to the death of 20-year veteran Apparatus Operator Joe Mangione due to pancreatic cancer in August 2020. And then they were dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. He said getting a therapy dog was discussed as a way to alleviate stress at the fire station, and he is glad that the idea was able to be resurrected.
Lola has been spending time getting acclimated to Hebert and life at his home in Farmington. She saw her first bit of snow on Tuesday, he said, and has already claimed the ottoman in front of the pellet stove as her favorite sleeping spot. She hadn’t lived in a house before – or ever had the opportunity to jump onto a couch – but she’s learning.
“She knows she’s in her castle,” he said.
Hebert has lived in a home with a dog previously, but currently doesn’t have any other pets, which was a requirement of becoming a handler to ensure the relationship would be successful. When Lola isn’t working she wears a regular collar and can do regular dog things. She’s friendly and likes to play with the neighborhood dogs and children.
When it’s time to work, Lola wears a special vest. “She’s very responsive [when she’s working],” he said. “She executes commands on cue.”
The sounds of a fire station are being broadcast at Hebert’s home to get her used to the loud noises she will experience when she starts coming to work with Hebert at Station 3 on New Britain Avenue next week.
Hebert said his day-to-day routine will be different, but Lola won’t go out on all calls. Part of her training will be learning to be comfortable staying at the station when the unit goes out to a call. The rest of the crew is eager to be involved, he said, and she’ll spend time at other stations as well.
Lola will go out on some calls, however, and already has her own equipment to do so safely. “We got her a seatbelt and little dog bed for the truck.” Hebert said.
“She will be deployable with the Peer Support Team to events that occur,” Howard said of Lola. She will provide support not just to department members, but can also be a calming resource to members of the public who have experienced a structure fire at their home or emotionally-taxing events like cardiac arrest, as well as when a tragedy occurs in the community. She may also provide mutual aid to emergencies or traumatic events in other towns.
She may also get involved in community engagement. “Kids like when firefighters visit anyway,” Howard said, and bringing Lola on visits to schools will add to the positive experience.
Chief Greg Priest said the administration is pleased and proud that Local 1241 took the lead in efforts to bring Lola to the department, and said it was all they’re doing. “It’s their vision,” he said. “It’s outstanding that the Union had the foresight to look for proactive measures to offer support to their members, to get in front of things before a problem might arise. … There’s times when the chief leads from the front, and times we should step back. This is one of those situations.”
Priest said it’s critically important for the fire department to not just protect citizens but also to take care of members who face significant stressors in this occupation and might fear the stigma of seeking help, or fear that the administration might interfere. “We want to make sure this is really supportive for the members, and is from their peers.”
Getting a therapy dog is a notable move, Priest said, and a sign that the fire service is really changing at all levels with increased focus on “surrounding our members with care and concern.”
“The dog is an initiative of Local 1241, but the town is being very supportive,” Howard said. Lola is covered by the town’s insurance policy, but Local 1241 will cover the ongoing cost of her food, medication, and veterinary care, as well as ensuring that taking care of her properly remains a priority. Pet Supplies Plus and VCA Veterinary Specialists of CT, both of which are businesses located in West Hartford, have stepped up to assist with subsidizing Lola’s food and veterinary care, he said.
In addition to adding Lola as a resource, Howard said the Peer Support Team has also recently obtained a department chaplain, Father George Zugravu. He is a West Hartford resident and serves as the Presiding Priest of St. George Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Hartford. “Fire Department chaplains have an understanding of the dangerous work that firefighters perform, and they develop a passion for the special ministry required by the fire service. This includes serving members of all faiths within the department, working closely with our Peer Support Team after challenging incidents, and recognizing the need for additional counseling resources,” Howard shared in a Facebook post.
He also said the Peer Support Team has put together an updated list of clinical resources equipped to deal with the type of trauma first responders face.
Lola will be officially welcomed to the West Hartford Fire Department at 10 a.m. on Saturday March 18, 2023, at Station 2 located at 20 Brace Road, West Hartford. Members of the public are welcome to attend the informal meet and greet.
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She has expressive (and sympathetically listening) eyebrows — which is perfect for a therapy dog.