The families of firefighters from stations across the Santa Clarita Valley – those effected by the Fire Station 81 shooting – turned out Saturday afternoon for Fire Family Day at the Santa Clarita Sports Complex.
More than 200 people – firefighters and their families – gathered to play games, eat barbecue, and enjoy each other’s company as they honored the memory of their fallen friend and brother, Firefighter Specialist Tory Carlon.
“Tory was a family man. That was his No. 1 priority. And so, for us to be able to do this and kind of reemphasize how important family is to us, I think is another great way to honor him,” said Jake Windell, a firefighter/paramedic at Station 107 in Canyon Country.
Windell, who was at the event with his wife, 2-month-old daughter and parents, said spending time with his family and his friends’ families was exciting and an opportunity to share the Los Angeles County Fire Department’s traditions with family.
“I think being a firefighter, being a paramedic, it’s a hard job. But being a spouse to a firefighter/paramedic and being the child of a firefighter/paramedic is even a harder job,” said Windell. “It’s really important to have our families get together and to share that support system, because they need each other when we’re all at work. That’s who they call.”
Windell, a peer support dog handler, and his fellow firefighters in the SCV haven’t worked their typical shifts this week. They’ve used the past several days to heal and honor Carlon, including a flag ceremony on Tuesday and Carlon’s memorial on Thursday.
“For (the department) to allow us to be home for a week, and be able to attend all those events without the worry or the stress of, ‘Hey, I might have to be stuck at work,’ was huge,” he said, noting that their time away from their posts was during a week of triple-digit temperatures.
Personnel from stations across the county have stepped in to cover for Windell and his co-workers since Monday. Fire Capt. Patrick Dolan and his crew from Rosemead were at the event to show their support.
“When one region gets affected by something we all kind of band together and help each other, that’s what we do,” said Dolan. “We’re here to make sure that they have time to spend with their families.”
Local stations also saw support from the Long Beach Fire Department, which barbecued while kids were playing in jumpers and engaging in water balloon tosses, and their parents were catching up with cold drinks, cornhole and live music.
The out-of-area support has been continuous, according to Scott Ross, a peer support coordinator with the department and a member of the Los Angeles County Firefighters Local 1014, which was an organizing partner of Fire Family Day.
“Today is a culmination of our entire behavioral health response,” said Ross, noting that Saturday’s family event is a part of the early stages of healing after the Station 81 shooting. “Over 80 peers from outside agencies were here over the last couple of weeks and that’s combined with our (155) peers.”
Dave Gillotte has made developing the department’s peer support program a top priority.
As president of Local 1014 and the chairman of the California Fire Service Task Force on Behavioral Health, Gillotte’s work involves “(making) it OK for firefighters to know that they’re going to get hurt mentally, they’re going to need help and that they have a place to go get it.”
“We are here today to heal. This is the LA County Fire Family Day and we’re going to start talking about Fire Family days a lot more,” said Gillotte, a peer support counselor. “(They’re) a chance to get away from our work, to decompress, to share life with each other rather than our job.”
He said that the department is looking into adding more resiliency training and proactive tools for behavioral health to prepare firefighters for the trauma Gillotte said every firefighter inevitably faces.
“What if we just shifted this whole thing on its head and said, ‘we’re going to start seeking out help proactively before we get in trouble,’” he said. “Would we have an impact on the suicide rate? We have an impact on nonfunctional firefighters as a result of stress on the job? My money is on yes.”