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Supporting our first responders: Group helps Santa Barbara County firefighters dealing with trauma

A Santa Barbara County firefighter battling the 2018 Holiday brush fire in Goleta, which destroyed 10 homes, and damaged three others.
Lance Orozco
A Santa Barbara County firefighter battling the 2018 Holiday brush fire in Goleta, which destroyed 10 homes, and damaged three others.

Non-profit ONE805 stages concerts to support first responders. Maroon 5, plus classic rock legends highlight the group's latest fundraiser on Friday.

Sam Dudley has been a Santa Barbara County firefighter for nearly a decade. When he became a firefighter, he knew as a first responder, he would sometimes face dangerous situations, and see things which were hard to see.

"I got into the career with the understanding that it's not if, but when a call is going to have an effect on you. We see some pretty horrific things, we experience horrific things. But, your sole purpose is to help the community."

He was in the thick of the January 9, 2018 Montecito debris flow which killed 23 people, and injured more than a hundred others.

"I found a two-year-old who was severely injured, and later I found a deceased child, who I later found out was the sibling of the first kid. It was hard," said Dudley. "I remember when I was finally able to talk to my wife, and she asked how I was, I said I just had the worst day of my life."

Dudley admits its hard not to relive what he saw that day.

"That call sticks with me. I couldn't stop thinking about it. I would drive to work through Montecito, and I would think about it. I would drive home, and think about it," said Dudley. "And, the reason I couldn't talk more about it is because I didn't want to expose her (my wife) to the trauma."

The fire department engineer finally reached out for help, through a free, confidential counseling program in the county. Dudley didn’t want to share the painful memories with his wife, but the therapist urged him to open up.

"When the counselor pushed that, I did. I looked over, and my wife was crying. My first thought was...this is what I wanted to avoid." The counselor asked his wife how she felt about this.

Her response was that she was so proud of her husband. "For me, it changed my whole thought process around," said Dudley. I was able to do something for the child, covering the remains with a blanket and standing by until the debris flow victim could be removed.

The free program is funded by a non-profit group called ONE805. It was founded to support first responders.

"We sprang out of the Thomas Fire, and Montecito debris flow, said Richard Weston-Smith. He and Kirsten Cavendish Weston-Smith are co-founders of ONE805.

"A group of us got together, and wanted to say thank you to the first responders. What started out as a barbeque and a band turned into the Kick Ash Bash, a ten hour concert headlined by Katy Perry," said Weston-Smith. "We really just thought when all of that was over, how could we stop here, and formed ONE805 as a non-profit."

He says they initially raised money for equipment, and training that local public safety agencies couldn’t buy on their own.

"We discovered there was this mental health issue," said Weston-Smith. When another non-profit organization dropped funding for the program for firefighters, ONE805 stepped up to help.

One805 is holding a benefit concert in Summerland Friday with pop music superband Maroon 5, plus classic rock giants like David Pack, Alan Parsons and Elliott Easton.

Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Mark Hartwig is grateful to One805 for picking up the ball when another non-profit group said it could longer support the counseling program. Hartwig said the service is critical. He said when he was a young firefighter, there was nothing like it.

"The interaction between me and my Captain was 'Hey Hartwig, they want to come out and talk to us about that call we just ran don't need any help, do you?' Of course, I didn't dare, as a young firefighter say 'Oh yeah, that really affected me,' said Hartwig,

The chief said they are trying to change that culture.

Chief Hartwig says the message they give young firefighters now is that they will need help it some point, it’s okay, and perhaps most importantly, it’s available.

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.