The risks of being a first responder seem obvious: running towards danger is the job. Yet in 2018, more police and firefighters died at their own hands than in the line of duty. PTSD and depression rates among police and firefighters are up to five times higher than the rates of the population they protect (source). This trauma reverberates out to their families, with traumatic stress reported among first responder spouses at rates similar to partners of veterans (source).
This mental health crisis has been worsened by stigma surrounding seeking mental health treatment in a culture that often emphasize toughness and bravery. Official support systems such as suicide prevention training programs are often under-utilized or non-existent.
To help counteract this issue, the annual Put The 1st First Public Safety Conference was created with the goal of supporting and recognizing the first responders and their families in the Central Minnesota region, with the inaugural event held on May 4, 2019.
Hosted by the Greater St. Cloud Public Safety Foundation and funded through donations from many local businesses and organizations, the event focused on mental health support for volunteer and professional first responders.
Keynote speaker Kent Williams of Breach Point Consulting focused his talks on the culture of first responders. Weaving in personal stories and examples from his time as Chief of Police in the Chicago area, he explained how the skills necessary for the job can be destructive if taken home – what he terms “The Caustic Risks of Performing Well in Law Enforcement,” and how a support network of family, coworkers, and peers can help. While the morning session was targeted to first responders and focused on their experiences, the afternoon session was opened to include spouses and family members for a message focused on support at home.
Beyond the keynote speaker, the event presented Length of Service awards across Police, Fire, and EMS. During the lunch hour, scholarships were presented to students pursuing careers as first responders; the Nicole Van Heel scholarship was awarded for the first time in honor of Nicole Van Heel, a local EMS and volunteer firefighter who died from complications of stroke suffered while on duty. Her family and team were present for the scholarship awards.
First response teams from Belgrade, Benton County, Paynesville, Willmar, Cold Spring, Sartell, Sauk Centre, St. Cloud, Waite Park, Windom, and Stearns County were present for the event, as well as students from St. Cloud State University. With 112 total registrations, the conference was well-attended with room to grow in the coming years.
The Greater St. Cloud Public Safety Foundation is an organization founded in 2017 and led by the private sector with collaboration from public servants. Their goal is to build the partnerships and support structure necessary to build trust and safety in the Central Minnesota region.
Beyond the annual 1st First Public Safety Conference, initiatives include the Community OutPost (COP House), scholarship programs aimed at generating interest and nurturing talent in first response professions, and the Tri-County School Safety Pilot Project, a partnership with GeoComm aimed at fully mapping out the interior of local high schools for faster and more accurate emergency response times.