Putting their lives on the line, those in public safety and the military experience trauma that sticks with them throughout their careers and their lives. A conference to address their mental health and well-being is coming to Boise in October.
A fateful September night in 1997 changed lives forever: A hero’s life was cut short, taken in the line of duty.
"It goes back to 21 years ago this month when Officer Mark Stall was killed here in Boise. And there were a lot of lives impacted by that,” Boise Police Capt. Ron Winegar said, “From that night I was also injured and have dealt with some chronic pain issues and other things physically as well as always, the emotional side of things.”
Officers’ lives were impacted by what they witnessed and experienced that tragic night.
Throughout Capt. Winegar's journey over the last two decades, he's helped others in similar circumstances. In law enforcement, fire and emergency services, peer support is critical; they lean on and rely on one another.
“We are OK and it’s OK to be affected maybe be damaged and to come back and continue on,” Winegar added.
In an effort to continue his pattern of lending support, Winegar is spreading encouragement at a conference for first responders, military, veterans, corrections officers, dispatchers, chaplains, retired first responders, professional staff, clinicians, and spouses of those in the public safety field on October 4-5. The inaugural conference will be held at the Bridge Event Center in Boise and is put on by 1st Responder Conferences, Code 4 NW and Blue H.E.L.P, hosted by Idaho First Responders Health & Safety Collaborative.
“Oftentimes this job can take its toll and we see officers firefighters paramedics who that toll weighs heavily on them. And if they're not able to cope successfully it can ruin lives and families and that’s a tragedy in itself,” Winegar said. “We are seeing far too many officers, firefighters, and paramedics take their own lives.”
Suicide rates are high among first responders, which is a piece this conference will address.
Finding a deeper meaning - something bigger than themselves - is crucial for those on the front lines, Winegar says.
“I also recommend for folks it’s huge to have balance have a life outside law enforcement or outside fire service, to have friends and people who are normal, if you will,” Winegar added.
“Folks, they dial 911 on their worst day and for us the worst day is never commonplace. We're going through that with you as well, we're all human beings,” Boise Fire Department Senior Firefighter and 1st Responder Conferences Boise conference co-organizer Timothy Wonacott told KTVB. “Human suffering is something we see each and every day.”
Wonacott says first responders see things that begin to wear on them and affect them physically – so much so that one’s brain can become traumatized, Wonacott says.
“We remove the emotion then we don't deal with the emotion real well we try to cope with it in other ways aren't healthy for us,” he added.
This event will provide tools and techniques to cope with stress and with tragedy and improve their well-being. Winegar says the human brain isn’t hard-wired to deal with tragedy day in and day out; it’s essential first responders and the military are given resources to overcome and handle those realities of their job.
“What I’ll be talking about at the conference is how to kind of free yourself from being that hostage. I call it "the ghost." We kind of all live with that second personification we have,” Wanocott said. “The first thing is just taking a look at yourself and doing quick a triage. It doesn't take much… The second step is just observe nature a bit. And start being more aware; I can't tell people how important it is to be mindful of their day.”
Wonacott spent about a month in treatment for his post-traumatic stress injury and traumatic brain injury, facing struggles with mind fog, lack of concentration and sleep deprivation; he dealt with trauma and tragedy in the field and in his personal life. His journey, however, was transformed when he received the tools he needed to overcome his struggles and return to work.
“My story is one of a lot of first responders: through my service and years of seeing things I started noticing a lot of issues with my health, a lot of anxiety, anger issues, just things - I just didn't feel right. I wasn’t able to perform like I wanted to perform,” Wanocott said.
He's dedicated to spreading awareness around mental, physical and spiritual health - all being intertwined. Part of his mission is to help people like himself – those who help others – and spread awareness and education about what they go through.
“Overall, we're looking at health. And not just physical health but spiritual health, mental health, cancer awareness - we're looking at the holistic picture and that’s bringing a lot of people to the forefront saying, you know what, I'm feeling this way and I want to find out why,” Wanocott told KTVB.
Reducing the stigma around asking for help is a deep intention of this conference.
“It’s creating better first responders. We're able to cope with stress better and look at it as a health issue not just mental health issue,” Wanocott said. “Saying something, we might feel weak or there’s a tinge in our armor. But that couldn't be further from the truth; coming forward it takes a lot of courage.”
“We think we've made steady progress over the years. I’ve been here 25 years and have certainly seen a change. But we're not there yet. So we have to keep trying,” Capt. Winegar added.
There are ways you can help with this conference: organizers are seeking donations for food and prizes, or you can sponsor a first responder so they can go free of cost.
For more information, visit 1stresponderconferences.org or 1st Responder/Military/Veterans Mental Health & Wellness Event on Facebook. You can also contact Jacki Briggs at firstname.lastname@example.org.