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South Coast based non-profit helps first responders deal with stress of constantly being on front lines

KCLU News photo by Lance Orozco
Santa Barbara County based 911 Ay Ease International helps support first responders from around the country deal with issues like trauma and stress from dealing with things like major disasters. This is a photo of the 2017 Thomas Fire burning near Faria Beach.

911 At Ease International provides free confidential counseling.

Reed Lovan has devoted his life to keeping the community safe. The Kern County Sheriff’s Sergeant has been in law enforcement for nearly two decades.

But, dealing with everything from hardened criminals to crime victims has taken a toll.

"I have had an incredibly blessed career," said Lovan. "Sometimes, you sit around, and say to yourself I can't believe they pay me for this. Sometimes, you sit around, and you think to yourself there's no money in the world worth this."

Lovan realized he needed help. A counselor connected him with a Santa Barbara based non-profit group called 911 At Ease International, which provides free, confidential counseling to first responders.

"We started 911 At Ease so we could offer first responders a confidential way for them to reach out and get counseling," said Mike McGrew, the non-profit's Executive Director.

He knows firsthand about the mental stress facing first responders, because the retired Santa Barbara Police officer was one of them for more than three decades.

McGrew says while first responders can get some through traditional programs, it’s often hard to find counselors equipped to deal with their issues. He says other issues include limitations on the number of sessions, and a lack of confidentiality.

The program started in Santa Barbara, then expanded throughout the region and statewide before going national. McGrew, who co-founded the organization with philanthropist Michael Hammer, says one of the hardest things can be getting first responders to see the need help.

"I saw firsthand how the trauma that is layered upon first responders can manifest in their life, and in not a very good way." said McGrew.

He said there's a cultural reluctance to address the issue.

"Just go out and do your best and suck it up," is the common attitude according to McGrew. "But, that culture led to law enforcement, and firefighters, and first responders having a very high suicide rate, having a high divorce rate, and alcoholism is another issue."

McGrew says 911 At Ease is trying to change the culture to recognize stress is an issue, and that there is nothing wrong with seeking help.

Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown is a big supporter of the program.

He notes that in the last decade, first responders in Santa Barbara County have had to deal with a wide range of traumatic events. They include the 2014 mass murders in Isla Vista, multiple large scale brush fires like the Thomas and Alisal wildfires, the deadly Montecito debris flow, and the Conception dive boat fire.

Some of those who’ve received helped say it’s helped improve their lives, their relationships with their families and co-workers, and their careers.

Reed Lovan said he made one call to a counselor, who then connected him with 911 At Ease. "I believe she not only saved me, but saved my career," said Lovan. It's about getting your head right, so you can get back into the fight, because people need us."

Information about 911 At Ease services.

Lance Orozco has been News Director of KCLU since 2001, providing award-winning coverage of some of the biggest news events in the region, including the Thomas and Woolsey brush fires, the deadly Montecito debris flow, the Borderline Bar and Grill attack, and Ronald Reagan's funeral.