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Huntington’s COMPASS Program for First-Responders Prioritizes Wellness, Mental Health

David Adkins
West Virginia Public Broadcasting
Huntington's COMPASS program for first responders is located inside its police department building.

The stress and trauma that first responders experience can build up if it isn’t addressed. The city of Huntington, West Virginia, is focusing on this concern with COMPASS, a wellness program that provides first responders and their families with mental and physical health services.

It began with a grant of a million dollars through the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ 2018 U.S. Mayors Challenge. The city also received additional funding from private organizations such as AT&T and non-profits like the Pallottine Foundation and the Tri-State Foundation.

The COMPASS Wellness center was established on the 5th floor of the Jean Dean Public Safety Building, the same building housing the Huntington Police Department. Today, the program provides first responders a gym, lounge, sauna, meditation room, and a robust kitchen.

Austin Sanders, the COMPASS program manager, connects stressful work conditions with the declining well-being of those in the field. “We're in a small town where, yeah, you go to a drug overdose, but it may be someone that you know, or you went to high school with, and that takes an enormous toll on a first responder. And just the sheer volume. Our fire department was responding in a typical year 4,000 calls. The number of calls they were seeing with drug overdoses just went through the roof.”

Sanders said the development of COMPASS was a unique innovation. “The city of Huntington is the first city in the country to really have a program like COMPASS. We’re the very first to incorporate not only the mind-body connection, not only having the COMPASS coaches, but really looking at the first responder not as a single individual, but their entire family as well.”

Sanders said the program is driven by responder feedback. “We actually have a survey that goes out to our first responders once a quarter. The integrity of it is as high as you can get. It's confidential and it is a voluntary survey,” Sanders said.

“One of the pieces of feedback that we received from the first responders is that they wanted a sauna. We thought ‘okay, like, what's the benefit to this,’ and we looked through the literature," he said. "Especially with the firefighters, the infrared sauna has a lot of benefits. Whenever they're in a house fire, or in a scene, there are a lot of toxins, toxins that can cause cancer and occupational illness down the road, that can really take an enormous toll on a firefighter. The infrared sauna allows the pores to open up and allows them to detox.”

COMPASS emphasizes first responders and their families having convenient access to mental health services, whether inside or outside the facilities. Amy Jefferson, mental fitness coach for COMPASS, thinks it’s an important component of the program. “My whole goal, at the very least, is for them to be comfortable enough to pop in and talk to me. You know, sometimes that's all it takes to maybe have some kind of a small intervention that will help someone down the road.”

The program's initial focus started before the facilities of the wellness center were constructed. “So when the program started, we didn't have the actual COMPASS facility. When the other wellness coach and myself first started, we actually spent a lot of time going into the fire departments,” Jefferson said. “So we were in every fire department, we did ride-alongs with the police. And so all these encounters kind of helped us to get to know them on a personal level. And we didn't go in with an agenda. It was more like to see what their jobs entailed. So we can better help them down the road. All of that I think helps to build that trust and build relationships.”

Jefferson said alleviating stigma around mental health for first responders improves the overall well-being of the community. “With this demographic it’s very difficult for them to ask for any kind of help, although they're in a position where they're exposed to more trauma than just the average person. You have to help the helpers or they can’t help the community.”

Jefferson said firefighters who work long shifts are encouraged to notify their supervisors if they want to schedule time for a COMPASS visit. “We worked with the fire department to create a policy, and it’s essentially a wellness policy, that says if you work a 24-hour shift, at the beginning of each shift, you notify your deputy chief who runs the show for the day, and you can schedule a time to come over to the compass COMPASS center.

Sanders explained the effects of the program on the workdays of firefighters.

“They go on what's called the delayed response, which means that if it's not a structure fire or anything serious, they don't respond to it, another truck goes in their space. It allows that engine whenever they're over here to just have an hour to check out. They can enjoy the massage chairs, they can enjoy a snack, the gym itself, we have the sauna, we have the meditation room, we have classes. What was really interesting was whenever we first thought to do that policy, one of the firefighters was really excited that we would have showers. I thought to myself, they have showers in the stations. Why are they so excited about a shower at the Wellness Center is because they're on that delayed response time. If they're at the station, taking a shower, and the alarm goes off on the radio, soap in your hair and everything, you got to go! Something as simple as taking a nice shower, and not having that stress. It does a lot for a person.”

Sanders said that a decrease in morale results in an increase in employee turnover within departments. “It costs about $100,000 to train and recruit a police officer in West Virginia. For us I think it’s about $60,000 for the fire department. So that’s a significant investment we’re making. And if we’re able to retain people, citizens are going to see significant cost savings.”

The stresses that first responders experience come from many directions and COMPASS works to address them all. “It's not just the opioid crisis that is putting a stress on first responders. It is COVID, it is civil unrest, it's politics, it's so many different things that influence the occupational stresses of the first responder,” Sanders said.

He thinks that Huntington’s COMPASS program can help serve as a road map for other cities implementing their own programs. “The purpose of this program is not only improve the health, humanity and performance of first responders in Huntington, but to create a scalable model. The COMPASS program is one more tool in a first responder’s toolkit to help them do their job."

He added: “You can’t fight a fire without a fire truck. You can’t be a police officer without handcuffs. This is going to not only create the best police officers and firefighters, but create the best people that work for us.”

Sanders notes that the success of the COMPASS program in Huntington has caused other cities to take notice. “We've had cities reach out to us already, that are very interested in the work that we're doing, and are very eager to, hopefully, at some point, create a COMPASS program of their own.”

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