LOS ANGELES — Most people wouldn’t go to their work on their day off, but Los Angeles County Fire Captain Dave Gillotte isn’t most people.
“I was just going to swing back through here, given everything that’s happened in the last few weeks,” he said.
What You Need To Know
- Earlier this month at LA County Fire Station 81, firefighter Jonathan Tatone killed one of his own, put another in the hospital and then killed himself
- In the wake of this tragedy, the LA County Board of Supervisors passed a motion this week in an effort to address workplace trauma
- Nationally, more firefighters died by suicide last year than in the line of duty, according to the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance
- LA County’s Peer Support Group is comprised of 155 firefighters especially picked and trained to provide emotional support to their brothers and sisters
What happened is that earlier this month at LA County Fire Station 81 in Agua Dulce, fellow firefighter Jonathan Tatone killed one of his own, Tory Carlon, and put another, Arnoldo Sandoval, in the hospital. Tatone then killed himself.
Gillotte, president of LA County Fire Union Local 1014, explained how this tragedy has sent shockwaves throughout the ranks.
“This is a place where you’re supposed to be able to come and be safe and that changed,” he said.
Among those impacted was former Marine and 14-year firefighter Francisco Lomeli, also known as Paco.
“I think a lot of us, we are having a hard time trying to internalize what happened,” he said. “I’m good friends with Arnie and I saw him a week ago Saturday, and it was eye opening. It really was.”
This tragedy has been the latest thing to pile on Paco, who is going through some personal battles, not to mention the 911 calls he can’t get out of his head. He has no words to explain what it has done to him.
Paco has reached out for professional help multiple times, but it’s been nearly impossible to find someone taking on clients. When he finally found someone, the therapist cancelled the sessions a month in.
“I’m holding myself together, only to constantly be knocked down when I’m trying to get help,” said Paco.
As a last resort, Paco reached out to Captain Gillotte, who connected him with a culturally competent clinician — a therapist who understands the ins and outs of the firefighting world.
That clinician is Dr. Steve Froehlich, the director of Behavioral Health and lead clinician for the LA County Fire Department. He recently came along with peer support coordinator and 29-year veteran LACFD Captain Scott Ross to meet with Gillotte.
“When a firefighter is reaching out for help, they’re not reaching out for help when they have a low level of pain, because their training is teaching them how to function in highly uncomfortable situations, and they repeat that over and over in their drills,” said Froehlich. “So their pain threshold is really really high.”
For years, the department has been working to improve the mental health of firefighters, implementing programs that give firefighters access to clinicians and the peer support group comprised of 155 firefighters especially picked and trained to provide emotional support to their brothers and sisters. They also have two canines.
The efforts are starting to pay off, Ross explained, because that peer support group was called to the scene within five minutes of the shooting.
“That someone at that level had enough savvy and forethought to start peer support early on in the incident, definitely is showing that we are changing to culture to understand how important this is,” Ross said.
In the wake of the tragedy, the counselor and peer support program will be closely looked at to assess its efficacy and, if possible, its expansion.
But it’s not just the shooting. Nationally, more firefighters died by suicide last year than in the line of duty, according to the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance. So, they’ll be looking at other tools too, everything from ordered absences to mandating a yearly visit with a therapist. Nothing is off the table.
“Can we be better by looking at tools of the trade both reactively and then proactively, resiliency training and conflict identification?” Gillotte said.
Because this mental health battle Gillotte says, must be won.
“Frankly, in memory of Tory Carlon and in the memory of every firefighter who has taken their life right up to this point, and in memory of all of us that do the work right now that need the help, we are not going to let this moment go, I assure you, and we are going to get some things done.”