South Metro Fire Rescue swears in comfort dogs to help first responders with PTSD

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CENTENNIAL, Colo. – South Metro Fire Rescue is trying something it says is “fairly revolutionary” among fire departments.

Monday night, SMFR officially swore in two dogs to the department. Champ and Molson even have their own badges.

“It really, truly solidified them as an employee and gives them the ability to be a part of the department the same that way I am or anybody else,” Molson’s handler, paramedic supervisor JP Piche told FOX31.

The dogs are the first two employees in SMFR’s Emergency Responder Service Dogs program. While fire departments have long used working dogs for arson investigations, search and rescue, scent tracking and as mascots, Molson and Champ are specially trained comfort dogs.

“Getting guys to open up, being able to talk to each other or talk to a mental health professional,” Piche said of the dogs' purpose.

The dogs give hugs, they can relieve stress by putting their weight on pressure points and can be a source of comfort for anyone experiencing a difficult time emotionally.

“He’ll roam the room and he’ll stop at people who need it and somehow, inherently, it’s amazing that they recognize it,” Piche said of Molson.

The idea for ERSD was born out of tragedy.

In December 2017, a gunman killed Douglas County Deputy Zackari Parrish, shot three other deputies, a police officer and two civilians.

“It came from Zack Parrish and it came from a very bad incident,” Piche said. “And so watching a tragedy happen, the goal is to not only prevent it from ever happening again but to help all those guys around it.”

Molson, Champ and their handlers dispatch to difficult calls, like the Highlands Ranch STEM School shootings, fire stations where staff may be having a tough time and outside agencies that need some help through tragedy.

“It can be anything from a big incident to, we just had a bad day and we need help,” Piche said.

Both dogs went through several months of specialized training to become service dogs. Piche says they are helping change the culture among first responders and mental health.

“Back in the old days, it used to be, 'Suck it up and just be tough and keep moving through it,'" he said.

That method is not a healthy one.

“There’s a very high percentage of PTSD inside the fire service… As well as alcohol, there’s a high suicide rate,” Piche said.

SMFR plans to introduce more support dogs to the department going forward. Their ultimate goal is to expand the program beyond their department.

“The true goal is to hit every responder across the nation and to be able to get anything that we can do to prevent any mental health issues or bring it to light so that they’re not in a bad spot,” Piche said.

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